French lawmakers have passed controversial legislation that would ban the wearing of the full-body veil in public, making France the second European country after Belgium to do so.
The lower house of the French parliament approved the bill, which would primarily affect the minority of Muslims who wear the veil, with the Senate expected to follow suit in September.
Under the legislation, offenders of the ban would face fines of 150 euros ($185), or classes on French citizenship, or both.
Family members or others convicted of forcing women to wear the veil would face a year in prison and a $38,000 penalty. Those figures would double if the victims were underage.
Following the vote, Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in the National Assembly that the approval was "also a success for the republic and the values that it embodies -- values of freedom from any kind or repression that seeks to humiliate the individual, values of equality between men and women."
France is the home to the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, accounting for 5-10 percent of the country's population of 64 million. The majority of France's Muslim population originates from Algeria and Morocco.
However, only a small minority of French Muslims -- fewer than 2,000 according to official figures -- wear a burqa-like veil that covers women's bodies head-to-toe.
Supporters of the ban say wearing the full veil contradicts France's secular values and poses potential security threats. Some French politicians liken the burqa to a "walking coffin," saying women who wear them must be liberated.
Critics of the bill say it violates citizens' civil liberties. Some have criticized the bill as a populist attempt to attract far-right voters.
The main body representing France's Muslims argues that Islam does not require the wearing of a full-body veil, and that such apparel is not suitable in France. However, it expresses concern that the ban would stigmatize all Muslims in general.
Opinion polls show overwhelming support for the ban of the full-body veil in France, as well as in other Western countries.
A recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that more than 80 percent of French respondents favor outlawing the veil.
Some 70 percent of German respondents and about 60 percent in Britain and Spain said they approved the ban. In the United States, 28 percent of those questioned were in favor of banning the veil.
Despite the apparent overwhelming support for the bill in France, it remains unclear whether the bill violates the country's constitution.
Experts in France say that the country's constitutional watchdog or eventually, the European Court of Human Rights could find the bill unconstitutional.
Olivier Roy, a Paris-based expert on Islam and former consultant to the French Foreign Ministry, says that France in the end would possibly settle with a partial ban.
"The issue is how to limit wearing the burqa," Roy says. "Probably, we will have at the end a partial ban, meaning a ban in schools, airports, public administrations, and places like that, in the name of security. The issue here is security and also equality."
France has already banned head scarves and other religious symbols in schools.
A number of predominantly Muslim countries, including Turkey, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, and Kazakhstan have banned head scarves in schools and government offices.
compiled from agency reports