Paris – The French cabinet approved a draft law to ban the Muslim full-face veil from public spaces on Wednesday, opening the way for the text to go before parliament in July.
"In this matter the government is taking a path it knows to be difficult,
but a path it knows to be just," President Nicolas Sarkozy told the assembled ministers, according to his office.
While Sarkozy's right-wing majority is expected to be able to push the law through parliament, constitutional experts have warned that it could be thrown out by judges and might fall foul of European law.
"We are an old nation united around a certain idea of human dignity, and in particular of a woman's dignity, around a certain idea of how to live together," Sarkozy insisted.
"The full veil that hides the face completely harms those values, which are so fundamental to us, so essential to the republican compact."
Heavy fine and punishment
According to the text of the law, no-one in France will be allowed to wear a garment "designed to hide the face". Those who flout it will be fined $180 or sent on a course to learn the values of French citizenship.
Anyone who forces someone through threats, violence or misuse of a position of authority to cover her face because of her sex will be jailed for a year and fined $18 500, the law says.
The law defines public spaces broadly to include all thoroughfares, all premises – such as shops, cinemas, restaurants and markets – open to the public and all government buildings.
France's highest administrative legal body, the Council of State, had warned the government that it might be legally impossible to impose and enforce such a ban, but Sarkozy and his supporters are determined to press on.
Some opposition Socialists have declared they will vote against a ban they feel will be impossible to enforce, and many Muslim groups oppose a ban they fear will stigmatise their religion.
Opponents of the ban point to official figures that estimate that only 2 000 members of France's approximately five-million-strong Muslim population wear the niqab, or full-face veil.