PARIS: French parliament passed a law Tuesday prohibiting wearing a full-face veil in public, meaning a ban will come into force early next year if it is not overturned by senior judges.
The Senate passed the bill by 246 votes to one and, having already cleared the lower house in July, the bill will now be reviewed by the Constitutional Council, which has a month to confirm its legality.
The text makes no mention of Islam, but President Nicolas Sarkozy's government promoted the law as a means to protect women from being forced to wear Muslim full-face veils such as the burqa or the niqab.
Once in force, the law provides for a six-month period of "education" to explain to women already wearing a face veil that they face arrest and a fine if they continue to do so in any public space.
A woman who chooses to defy the ban will receive a fine of 150 euros (195 dollars) or a course of citizenship lessons. A man who forces a woman to go veiled will be fined 30,000 euros and serve a jail term.
"This is not about security or religion, but respecting our republican principles," Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie declared before the vote.
"France, land of secularism, guarantees respect for all religions (but) hiding the face under a face-covering veil is against public social order, whether it is forced or voluntary," she said.
Some other European countries are mulling similar bans, but critics of the law in its proposed form believe it is too broadly framed and that it will eventually be overturned as unconstitutional and discriminatory.
Two senior lawmakers from Sarkozy's UMP ruling party said the new law should go before the Constitutional Council to ensure that it is in full conformity with France's constitution.
"This law has been the subject of long and complex debates on the essential principles that form the basis of our republican pact," Bernard Accoyer and Gerard Larcher said in a statement.
The vote comes when some of France's other policies - especially a drive to round up and expel Roma Gypsies - have led to accusation of racism, and the tough new law is expected to draw further criticism from rights groups.
The policy also has the rare distinction of being condemned in advance by both the United States and al Qaeda, with both US President Barack Obama and militant Ayman al-Zawahiri criticising it as an insult to Muslims.
While Sarkozy's determination to halt what some here see as the spread of the use of the niqab won enough votes in parliament, opponents argue it breaches French and European human rights legislation.
The bill defines public space very broadly, including not just government buildings and public transport, but all streets, markets and thoroughfares, private businesses and entertainment venues.
Similar laws are pending in Belgium, Spain and some Italian municipalities, but the ban is particularly sensitive in France, whose often rundown city suburbs are home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority.
Critics say the law exploits a non-problem - only about 1,900 women among France's five to six million Muslims wear a full veil - and panders to anti-Muslim sentiment while distracting from France's economic woes.
Most French Muslims come from France's former colonies in North and West Africa, where wearing the veil is rare, rather than from the Arabian peninsula or Pakistan, where niqabs and burqas are a cultural tradition.
Some Muslim leaders say they support steps to discourage women from wearing the full veil, but that a law would unfairly stigmatise a vulnerable group.
Mindful that a law with a broad scope might be struck down by the European Court of Human Rights, which protects religious freedoms, Sarkozy's own ruling party asked for the text to be examined by the Constitutional Council.
Nevertheless, the ban enjoys broad popular support. An international poll conducted in April and May by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that more than eight in 10 French voters supported a ban.