'No one should be told what to wear,' says artist

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Visual artist Bérengère Lefranc, 40, wore a bespoke burkha throughout June last year, for artistic – rather than religious – reasons. On 15 June, President Nicolas Sarkozy said the full burkha was "not welcome in France".

Ms Lefranc, from Paris, said the change in attitude towards her was tangible overnight. "People felt they had been given permission from their President to reject the full face-covering veil," she told The Independent. "It was noticeable, there was a lot more hostility, though I had experienced mixed reactions before."

On one occasion she was "growled at like a dog" by a woman on the street, though she said she never felt threatened physically. "It's difficult to explain the mockery. People would take photos of me, without asking permission before or thanking me after. At times I felt like an animal in a zoo.

"One day, I decided to wear a flower by my eye. There were people who seemed happy to see my accessory – they thought I was somehow complicit with them in mocking the burkha. I found it so bizarre I took the flower off and didn't wear it again."

She also felt the kindness of strangers. "There were people who came up to ask me questions, to offer to help me. And that didn't stop after 15 June."

Her experience hasn't swayed her opinion on the burkha. "I don't think anyone should be told what to wear. What is not acceptable is for anyone to have the burkha imposed on them, and women should be asked why they are wearing it. I am opposed to a law banning the burkha, but I think we need to address the issue of men imposing clothing on women.

"I explained to people that I was wearing the veil for artistic – rather than religious – reasons," says the former television journalist who moved to the visual arts a decade ago. Ms Lefranc's experiences have been published in a new book, The Veil: A Certain Me in June.