France's upper house of parliament has approved controversial legislation banning the wearing of garments that cover the face in public.
The vote passed the French Senate by a vote of 246-to-1. It cleared the lower house in July.
The law must now be reviewed by the Constitutional Council, which has a month to confirm its legality. If it does, a six-month grace period will give women who wear a face veil time adjust to the new law.
Women who continue to wear the veil after the law comes into effect face a fine of 150 euro ($185) as well as mandatory classes in French citizenship.
A man who forces a woman to wear the veil will be fined 30,000 ($38,000) euro and serve a term in jail.
The proposed legislation would primarily affect the minority of Muslims who wear the full-face veil, barring it from public spaces including government buildings, public services, streets, and entertainment venues.
Supporters of the ban say wearing the full veil -- known as the burqa or niqab -- poses potential security threats, contradicts France's secular values and republican principles, and goes against women's dignity.
Speaking after the vote, French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie praised French senators. "I just think that the [French] Republic can be proud of its Senate and its senators tonight," she said.
A Question Of Women's Rights?
France is home to the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, accounting for 5 to 10 percent of the country's population of 64 million. The majority of France's Muslim population originates from Algeria and Morocco. According to official figures, 1,900 of them wear a full veil, most often a niqab worn with a long, dark robe. A burqa covers the eyes, as well.
We don't have the right to forbid women wearing the full veil. We must always be on the woman's side. We mustn't treat a woman like a child.
Opponents of the ban say it violates citizens' civil liberties. Some also say the law is dealing with a nonissue in a bid to pander to anti-immigration voters and to distract attention from France's economic woes.
Some Muslim leaders complain that the discussion over the full veil, coupled with a debate on French national identity, has left Muslims feeling their religion is being targeted.
M'hammed Henniche is the secretary-general of the Union of Muslim Associations in the Seine-Saint-Denis district north of Paris, a federation which claims to group about 30 mosques. He told RFE/RL before the September 14 vote that women should be not dictated to about what they should wear.
"It's a very dangerous step we are making in terms of restriction of individual liberties," Henniche said. "We say we are against forcing women to wear the full veil in Iran and against forbidding women to wear pants in Sudan, and we are saying the same thing in France.
"We don't have the right to forbid women wearing the full veil. We must always be on the woman's side. We mustn't treat a woman like a child."
Broad Popular Support
But such a ban enjoys broad popular support among the French population. A recent survey by the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project found that more than eight in 10 French respondents favored it. In 2004, France passed a law banning head scarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools.
The same mood prevails in Germany, Britain, and Spain, where between 65 and 71 percent of respondents are in favor of a ban.
Two famous opponents, however, come from radically opposite camps: both U.S. President Barack Obama and the Islamist militant leader Ayman al-Zawahiri have called the ban an insult to Muslims.
Experts say the legislation could face a challenge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, whose decisions are binding.
A national ban on wearing the Islamic full-face veil in public is in the works in neighboring Belgium, where deputies voted in April for such legislation. The ban, which must be approved by Belgium's Senate before taking effect, prohibits the public wearing of face-coverings. Doing so would be punishable by fines of up to 25 euros ($33) and imprisonment for up to seven days.
Elsewhere in Europe, Barcelona in June became the first big city in Spain to forbid full face veils in public buildings. Swiss cantons have also started to impose bans, while some Italian towns have been trying to ban such garments with local decrees.
Hours before the French Senate passed the controversial ban, the government was harshly rebuked by the EU for its controversial policy of exporting Roma back to their home country.
European Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding called the practice "a disgrace" and threatened legal action against Paris for breaking European law.
Rights groups have accused France of racism for expelling some 1,000 Roma, or Gypsies, from camps around the country.