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France Wants To Study Burqa Wear, May Ban It In Public

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PARIS — France wants to study the small but growing trend of burqa wear, with an eye to possibly banning the Islamic garment from being worn in public, the government's spokesman said Friday.

Luc Chatel told France-2 television that the government would seek to set up a parliamentary commission that could propose legislation aimed at barring Muslim women from wearing the burqa and other fully covering gowns outside the home.

"If we find that use of the burqa was very clearly imposed (on women) ... we would draw the appropriate conclusions," Chatel said. Asked whether that could mean legislation banning the burqa in France, he responded "why not?"

In France, the terms "burqa" and "niqab" often are used interchangeably. The former refers to a full-body covering worn largely in Afghanistan with only a mesh screen over the eyes, whereas the latter is a full-body veil, often in black.

Chatel's comments have helped revive debate about whether wear of Islamic garments is appropriate in France, a country with a long and proud secular tradition.

In 2004, a law banning the Islamic headscarf and other highly visible religious symbols from French public schools sparked a heated debate on the issue. Proponents insisted such a ban was necessary to ensure France's schools remain strictly secular, while some Muslims countered the law specifically targeted them and unduly punished Muslim girls.

French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Friday that having a parliamentary commission study the issue would be a "good way" to find out how extensively burqas and niqabs are worn in France _ and what response might be adequate.

She conceded that legislating on what people can and cannot wear in public was a spiny matter, and also acknowledged it would be difficult to determine whether women wore the full-body veils because they were forced to or because they wanted to, Alliot-Marie said.

"It's a relatively complex problem," she told reporters.

The head of France's opposition Socialist party dismissed the issue, saying that in the middle of the global financial crisis, the country's legislators have more pressing matters to deal with.

France, which once held colonies throughout North Africa, has Western Europe's largest Muslim population. Muslims represent an estimated 5 million of the nation's 63 million people.

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Associated Press writer Laurence Joan-Grange in Paris contributed to this report.

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