Religious liberty campaigners have condemned a vote by the French National Assembly in favour of banning face coverings in public. The proposed law is aimed at preventing Muslim women from wearing a veil, known as a niqab.
Although there are around five million Muslims in France, only about 2,000 cover their faces.
The decision was strongly criticised by Amnesty International, who described it as an assault on free expression. There are predictions that religious and racial tensions will rise in France if the ban goes ahead.
The Socialist opposition had been planning to vote against the ban, but decided at the last moment to abstain, apparently due to internal disagreement over the issue. The bill thus passed the National Assembly by 335 votes to one, with 221 abstentions.
The law will now go to the French senate, who are expected to vote on it in September. If approved by the French Constitutional Court, it will come into effect six months later.
But there are already predictions that it will face a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.
The new law would levy a fine of 150 euros (currently around £119) on someone who covers her face. In addition, there would be a one-year jail term and a fine of 30,000 euros for a man who forces a woman to cover her face.
The French Justice Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, described today's vote as a victory for democracy and for “French values” of “freedom against all the oppressions which try to humiliate individuals” and “equality between men and women”.
But Jean Glavany, a Socialist MP who maintained his opposition to the ban, said that the propsoal was based on "nothing more than the fear of those who are different, who come from abroad, who aren't like us, who don't share our values”.
Opponents of the measure agree that it is wrong for someone to be forced to cover her face, but say that it is equally wrong to force her not to. Amnesty's John Dalhuisen said that French politicians should “focus on empowering women to make their own choices, rather than limiting the range of choices available to them”.
He added, “the rights to freedom of religion and expression entail that all people should be free to choose what - and what not - to wear. These rights cannot be restricted simply because some - even a majority – find a form of dress objectionable or offensive.”
Alliot-Marie claimed that the bill is not aimed at “stigmatising or singling out a religion". But it is widely opposed amongst France's five million Muslims, only about 2,000 of whom cover their faces.
For example, Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said he wishes to discourage women from wearing the niqab, but that it is wrong to make it illegal.
Meanwhile, a French businessman, Rachid Nekkaz, is already arguing that the ban would be unconstitutional. He said he would set up a fund of one million euros to help woman pay the fines. If the bill becomes law there is a possibility that Muslim women who currently do not cover their faces, and even some supportive non-Muslims, may begin to wear the niqab as a form of protest.