The French parliament on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the full-face Islamic veil as an affront to the nation's values, setting the stage for a law banning it.
The vote in the National Assembly put France on course to become the second European country after Belgium to declare the wearing of the burqa or the niqab illegal in public places.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party and the opposition Socialists made a rare show of unity in backing the non-binding resolution that declared the veil "contrary to the values of the republic." "The full veil challenges the values that we share and the very principles according to which we live together," Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told the assembly ahead of the vote.
"The government is determined to take all means to combat these practices which are contrary to the values of the republic," she said. The non-binding measure was approved by a vote of 434 to 0 in the 577-seat National Assembly, although about 30 Communist deputies had earlier walked out of the chamber in protest.
Next week, Sarkozy's cabinet will examine a draft bill that could impose fines on women who wear the full veil and threaten with imprisonment men who force their wives or daughters to cover themselves. That bill will then go before parliament in July where it will face some resistance over proposals to make it illegal for reasons of security to wear face-covering veils anywhere in public.
The Socialist opposition is calling on the government to restrict the ban to state institutions to avoid a court challenge that would derail the legislation. "We fear that you will go too far," Socialist Jean Glavany told the justice minister. "We must defend the republic with wisdom and perspicacity."
Debate on the burqa ban has prompted warnings that it could stoke tension in a country that is home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority, estimated at between five and six million, and where Islam is the number two religion.
Police carried out a full security sweep of parliament ahead of the vote, using sniffer dogs to search the chamber and adjoining corridors, and also securing rooftops. After declaring the burqa "unwelcome" in officially secular France, Sarkozy last month moved to support a total ban despite warnings from the State Council, a top administrative body, that such a move may be unconstitutional.
Before joining his fellow communists, deputy Alain Bocquet denounced the measure as a ploy to woo the far-right and warned that a ban will lead France to "division."
In the resolution, lawmakers declared that "radical practices which violate the dignity and equality between men and women, such as the wearing of the full veil, are contrary to the values of the republic." Parliament "deems it necessary that all useful means be put in place to ensure the protection of women who are subjected to violence and pressure and in particular are forced to wear the full veil," it said.
Fewer than 2,000 women wear the head-to-toe veil, according to the interior ministry. The head of France's Council of the Muslim Faith, a government body created to promote inter-faith relations, warned that the veil ban risks leaving many Muslims feeling like outcasts.
"Rather than enacting a law barring women from expressing their malaise, we should think about what prompted them to want to cover themselves," said Mohamed Moussaoui, who met lawmakers ahead of the vote. French politicians have said the law will also apply to wealthy tourists from the Middle East and the Gulf who are often seen fully veiled in luxury shops on the Paris boulevards.