French lawmakers opened hearings Wednesday on whether to ban the burka, calling in experts who said France should act to discourage Muslim women from wearing the head-to-toe veil.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has proclaimed the burka "not welcome" in secular France, drawing a warning from Al-Qaeda's north Africa wing that it was ready to "take revenge for the honour of our daughters and sisters."
Home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority, France has set up a special panel of 32 lawmakers to consider whether a law should be enacted to bar Muslim women from wearing the full veil, known as a burka or niqab.
At the first hearing, two academics described wearing the burka as a throwback to a form of archaic Islam and a type of cult-like behaviour, incompatible with modern France.
Islam expert Abdennour Bidar called the full veil a "pathology of Islam" embraced by hardline Salafists who tell Muslim women to cover themselves as a way to "get back to their roots."
"It's up to the republic to help Islam in our country choose its destiny and help French Muslims resist this pressure," said Bidar.
"We must find ways to prevent the burka from spreading. Whether that would be a law or something else is not for me to say."
Anthropologist Dounia Bouzar said young women had in recent years taken to wearing the full veil after being indoctrinated by "gurus" who pervert Islam's teachings.
"Even imams are having difficulties countering this type of message," she said, adding that there was nothing in the Koran that dictated to women that they must fully cover themselves.
"The niqab entered Islam's history a little more than 70 years ago while Islam dates back 14 centuries," noted Bouzar.
She suggested that measures be adopted under France's security laws barring citizens from concealing their identities by covering their faces, be it with a niqab, a ski mask or even a paper bag.
Such a measure would apply equally to all citizens and ensure that France's five million Muslims do not feel stigmatized for their religion, she argued.
As the hearings got under way, the leader of the governing right-wing majority in parliament came out in favour of a law banning the burka but said it should be preceded by a period of "dialogue" of six months to a year.
"We must prohibit what should be prohibited but only after having explained why," said Jean-Francois Cope, a leading figure in Sarkozy's UMP party, in an interview to Le Parisien newspaper.
France has had a long-running debate on how far it is willing to go to accommodate Islam without undermining the tradition of separating church and state, enshrined in a flagship 1905 law.
In 2004, it passed a law banning headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools to defend secularism.
In an address to parliament last month, Sarkozy said the burka was not a symbol of religious faith but a sign of women's "subservience" and declared that the full veil was "not welcome" in staunchly secular France.
A few weeks later, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, called on Muslims in France to "confront this hostility with greater hostility.
"We will take revenge for the honour of our daughters and sisters against France and against its interests by every means at our disposal," he was quoted as saying by the US monitoring service SITE Intelligence.
The parliamentary task force will also hear from women's groups, Muslim associations, educators and mayors in the coming months before presenting a report at the end of January.