PARIS (AP) — France's former conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has branded the full-body burkini swimsuits worn by some Muslim women a "provocation" that he says supports radicalized Islam.
A series of local town bans on burkinis in France has set off a heated debate in the strictly secular country. Sarkozy says in a TV interview Wednesday night that "we don't imprison women behind fabric."
As a leading opposition figure, Sarkozy announced this week that he is running for the presidency again in next spring's election. He must first win the primaries organized by the French right in November, where he's expected to face tough competition.
Sarkozy says if he wins, he will ban every visible religious sign in French universities.
Sarkozy, 61, is expected to campaign on a hard-line platform on immigration and security issues in a country marked by recent attacks carried out by Islamist extremists.
In the TF1 channel interview, Sarkozy insisted that Muslims in France are French people "exactly like any other ones" but, when living in the country, they must "assimilate" the French language and way of life, the French regions and the history of France.
Muslim people shouldn't "impose their differences on the majority," he said.
Regarding his social and economic platform, Sarkozy said he wants to set up decreasing unemployment benefits but assured at the same time that the "French social model" will remain intact if he is elected.
"Here, it's not the United States where people end up living in a mobile home when they lose their jobs", he said.
Recently, Sarkozy has said that, in the name of France's secularism, he opposes pork-free options proposed by many school canteens for Muslim and Jewish children. He has also suggested that children born in France to parents staying illegally in the country shouldn't be granted French nationality.