French legislators took up the touchy subject of face-covering, body-length Muslim veils such as the burqa Wednesday, as a leading lawmaker softened his calls for an outright ban by suggesting the garments could be forbidden gradually.
France's questioning of the veils has raised hackles among some Muslim groups abroad and prompted threats from an Al Qaeda affiliate based in Algeria. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said last month that burqas make women prisoners and that they would not be tolerated in France.
The National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, put together a committee of 32 legislators from all four major political parties to study the wearing of burqas and niqabs, face-covering veils worn primarily by women in Saudi Arabia and by some other Muslim women.
The committee held its first meeting Wednesday.
The head of the governing conservative party UMP, Jean-Francois Cope, has called for a ban on the veils in France. On Wednesday, he was quoted in Le Parisien newspaper as suggesting that any ban should not be"hasty."
Instead, he suggested a two-stage effort,"a ban preceded by six months to a year of dialogue, explanation and warnings."
France is home to western Europe's largest population of Muslims, estimated at 5 million. A small but growing group of French Muslim women wear full-body robes and veils that cover everything but the eyes.
Cope insisted that it's a"political debate, not a religious one."
He said the veils pose"a problem of security and public order" because they conceal the wearer's identity."These clothes exclude women from the national community, deny their identity," Le Parisien quoted him as saying.
Last week, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, issued a statement on Islamic Web sites vowing to"seek vengeance against France" over Sarkozy's comments about the veils. The declaration could not be independently verified.
Human Rights Watch has said a ban would be counterproductive, and a top British Muslim group said Sarkozy's comments were patronizing and offensive. Lebanon's most influential Shiite cleric called on the French leader to reconsider his statement.