"The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women's dignity," he said.

"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."

Referring to a cross-party initiative by nearly 60 legislators, 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.

Headscarf controversy

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 stigmatised Muslims at a time when France should have been fighting discrimination in the job and housing markets.

Sarkozy's comments, which were part of a major policy address, came in the first speech in 136 years to a joint session of France's parliament.

It follows a constitutional amendment narrowly passed last year to make such a speech to both houses possible.