The French cabinet has cleared a draft law aimed at banning the Muslim full-face veil, which would make it illegal to wear any item of clothing that intentionally hides the face.
The controversial draft is now set to go before the French parliament for final ratification in July, when it is expected to be pushed through by President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing majority.
Sarkozy told cabinet ministers the government was "taking a path it knows to be difficult, but a path it knows to be just."
"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 said.
"The full veil that hides the face completely harms those values, which are so fundamental to us, so essential to the republican compact."
Draft law faces resistance
Those caught wearing a full-face veil - sometimes known as a niqab or burqa - in public would be fined 150 euros ($185) or made to attend a course on French values. Anyone found to have forced a woman to wear a full-face veil through the use of violence, threats or misuse of a position of authority would face a year in jail and a fine of 15,000 euros.
Public spaces include all thoroughfares and premises - such as shops, cinemas, restaurants and markets - as well as all government buildings.
The draft ban has faced resistance from some opposition Socialists, who say they will vote against the legislation when it reaches parliament. They argue such a ban would be impossible to enforce.
Many Muslim groups also oppose the draft over fears it could marginalize France's five-million-strong Muslim population. Only a small minority of Muslim women in Europe wear the full-face veil.
Editor: Martin Kuebler