PARIS (AP) -- President Nicolas Sarkozy declared Monday that the Islamic burqa is not welcome in France, branding the face-covering, body-length gown as a symbol of subservience that suppresses women's identities and turns them into "prisoners behind a screen."
But there was a mixed message in the tough words: an admission that the country's long-held principle of ethnic assimilation - which insists that newcomers shed their traditions and adapt to French culture - is failing because it doesn't give immigrants and their French-born children a fair chance.
In a high-profile speech to lawmakers in the historic chateau at Versailles, Sarkozy said the head-to-toe Muslim body coverings were in disaccord with French values - some of the strongest language against burqas from a European leader at a time when some Western officials have been seeking to ease tensions with the Muslim world.
"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," Sarkozy said to extended applause of the lawmakers gathered where French kings once held court.
"The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement - I want to say it solemnly," he said. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."
Some Muslim leaders interpret the Quran to require that women wear a headscarf, niqab or burqa in the presence of a man who is not their husband or close relative.
France is home to Western Europe's largest population of Muslims, estimated at about 5 million. A small but growing group of French women wear burqas and niqabs, which either cloak the entire body or cover everything but the eyes.
Critics fear the issue of full-body coverings, which only involves a tiny minority of French Muslims, could increase discrimination against all Muslims who display their faith in any way.
Dalil Boubakeur, director of the largest Paris mosque, said Sarkozy's push to keep out the burqa is typical of French culture, but worried that he might inflame tensions with Muslims.
The president wanted to show that "the rules of life in France - and that you can just bring in unjustified traditions," Boubakeur said.
"But you have to hope - inshallah (God willing) - that there won't be any ill-feeling, controversies or incidents in this confrontation between an Eastern idea and Western life," Boubakeur told the AP in a telephone interview. "Or then eastern Muslims will have to return to the Orient ... completely unable to assimilate and uncomfortable in a Western system."
But Sarkozy also said immigrants face economic challenges in France, and the government needs to do more to help them.
"Who doesn't see that our integration model isn't working any more?" Sarkozy said. "Instead of producing equality, it produces inequality. Instead of producing cohesion, it creates resentment."
The unemployment rate for immigrants and their French-born children is higher than the national average. Many children of immigrants complain of discrimination, saying they get passed over for jobs because they have "foreign-sounding" names. Frustration of many children of north African and black immigrants boiled over in France's three-week wave of riots in 2005.
The burqa comments made up only a few lines of Sarkozy's speech, which focused on the global economic crisis and a Cabinet shake-up expected to be announced Wednesday. The address was the first by a French president to parliament in 136 years; the last was in 1873 - before lawmakers banned the practice to protect the separation of powers and keep the president in check. That ban was scrapped last year.
In France, the terms "burqa" and "niqab" often are used interchangeably. A burqa is a full-body covering worn largely in Afghanistan - with only a mesh screen over the eyes. A niqab is a full-body veil, often black, with slits for the eyes.
Muslim groups and government officials say it's hard to know how many women wear burqas and niqabs in France - though estimated to be at least in the hundreds. They are far less prevalent than simpler Muslim head scarves.
A 2004 law banned wearing the Muslim head scarf at public schools, along with Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. That law sparked fierce debate both at home and abroad.
In a visit to Normandy earlier this month, President Barack Obama addressed France's headscarf ban, saying countries handle such issues with their national sensitivities and histories in mind, before adding: "I will tell you that in the United States our basic attitude is, is that we're not going to tell people what to wear."
The French government has been divided on a burqa ban. Immigration Minister Eric Besson said a ban would only "create tensions," while junior minister for human rights Rama Yade said she was open to a ban if it was aimed at protecting women forced to wear the burqa.
The burqa has come under criticism in some parts of Europe. In 2003, Sweden's National Agency for Education gave schools the right to ban pupils from wearing burqas if it interferes with the teaching or safety regulations.
The Dutch government last year described the burqa and other clothing that covers the face, as "undesirable," but the ruling coalition stopped short of attempting a ban amid concerns of possible religious discrimination. But the government did say it would work toward banning burqas in schools and among public servants, saying that they stand in the way of good communication.
Later Monday, Sarkozy hosted a state dinner with Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani of Qatar - a Persian Gulf state where women often wear niqabs. The emir was joined by one of his wives, Sheika Mozah, whose head was covered in an elegant turban.