PARIS – President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday that burqas, garments that cover women from head to toe and hide their faces, had no place in France as they were a sign of the subjugation of women.

During a solemn speech to parliament on a wide range of issues, Sarkozy backed an initiative launched by legislators last week who expressed concern over an increase in the use of burqas in France.

The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women's dignity, Sarkozy told a joint session of both houses of parliament, held at the Palace of Versailles.

The burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory, he said to strong applause.

Referring to a cross-party initiative by close to 60 legislators last week, who proposed a parliamentary commission to look into the spread of the burqa and find ways to combat the trend, Sarkozy said it was the right way to proceed.

A debate has to take place and all views must be expressed. What better place than parliament for this? I tell you, we must not be ashamed of our values, we must not be afraid of defending them, he said.

The debate about the burqa is reminiscent of a controversy that raged for a decade in France about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in class. Eventually, a law was passed in 2004 banning pupils from wearing conspicuous signs of their religion at state schools.

Critics say the law stigmatized Muslims at a time when the country should be fighting discrimination in the job and housing markets that has caused a rift between mainstream society and many youths from an immigrant background.

(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon)