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In battle of the burqa, Obama and Sarkozy differ

During speech Monday, Sarkozy suggested that the traditional female Islamic dress was a form of enslavement. But Obama backed freedom of religious expression in his Cairo speech.

A burqa-clad Afghan woman walks in an old bazaar in Kabul, in this March 2009 file photo.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters

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In the battle of the burqa, the two Western presidents from two international defenders of freedom, France and America, are finding no common ground.

On Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy forcefully condemned the burqa, the traditional female dress for some segments of Islam that covers a woman from head to toe, as a form of enslavement. And he vowed to ban it from the French republic.

Mr. Sarkozy's position, offered in a speech to Parliament, followed by less than a month American President Obama's opposite take on the subject of covering by Muslim women.

In his Cairo speech to the Muslim world earlier this month, Mr. Obama called on Western countries "to avoid dictating what clothes a Muslim women should wear," saying such action constituted "hostility" towards religion clothed in "the pretense of liberalism."

To seal the Franco-American fashion debate, the issue subsequently divided the two leaders – both male, it should be noted – when they met in Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day on June 6.

Having suffered the lightning wrath of some French women's groups for his Cairo comments, Obama reiterated: "Our basic attitude [in America] is that we're not going to tell people what to wear."

Sarkozy's response was also based on a defense of freedom, though from a different perspective. "A young woman can wear a head scarf," he said, "provided that's a decision she made freely and had not been forced on her by her family or entourage."

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