PARIS – France's lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved a ban on wearing burqa-style Islamic veils Tuesday, part of a determined effort to define and protect French values that has disconcerted many in the country's large Muslim community.
Proponents of the law say face-covering veils don't square with the French ideal of women's equality or its secular tradition. The bill is controversial abroad but popular in France, where its relatively few outspoken critics say conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has resorted to xenophobia to attract far-right voters.
The ban on burqas and niqabs will go in September to the Senate, where it also is likely to pass. Its biggest hurdle will likely come after that, when France's constitutional watchdog scrutinizes it. Some legal scholars say there is a chance it could be deemed unconstitutional.
The issue has been debated across Europe, and Spain and Belgium have similar bans in the works. In France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population, about 5 million of the country's 64 million people are believed to be Muslim. While ordinary headscarves are common in France, only about 1,900 women are believed to wear face-covering veils.
The main body representing French Muslims believes such garb is not suitable in France, but it fears the ban will stigmatize all Muslims.
Malika Hamidi, director general of the European Muslim Network think tank, said she is very worried. The ban's backers are "playing up a feeling of fear of Islam" at a time when Europe is concerned about its changing identity, struggling to manage its diversity and dealing with an economic crisis, she said.
In Tuesday's vote at the National Assembly, there were 335 votes for the bill and just one against it. Most members of the main opposition group, the Socialist Party, walked out and refused to vote, though they in fact support a ban. They simply have differences over where it should be enforced, underscoring the lack of controversy among French politicians on the issue.
The bill passed Tuesday bans face-covering veils everywhere that can be considered public space, even in the street, but the Socialists only want it in certain places, such as government buildings, hospitals and public transport.
France's government has insisted that assimilation is the only path for immigrants and minorities, and last year it launched a grand nationwide debate on what it means to be French. The country has had difficulty integrating generations of immigrants and their children, as witnessed by weeks of rioting by youths, many of them minorities, in troubled neighborhoods in 2005.
At the National Assembly, few dissenters spoke out about civil liberties or fears of fanning anti-Islam sentiment.
Legislator Berengere Poletti, of Sarkozy's party, said face-covering veils "are a prison for women, they are the sign of their submission to their husbands, brothers or fathers."
The niqab and burqa are also seen here as a gateway to extremism and an attack on secularism, a central value of France for more than a century.
Discussions in France have dragged on for more than a year, since Sarkozy declared in June 2009 that the burqa is "not welcome" in France.
There has been some concern the bill could prod terror groups to eye France or its citizens as potential targets. Following Sarkozy's comments, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement on Web sites vowing to "seek vengeance against France."
The legislation would forbid face-covering Muslim veils in all public places in France and calls for euro150 ($185) fines or citizenship classes, or both.
Socialist Senator Bariza Khiari, one of France's few Muslim politicians, fears some women targeted "will withdraw into themselves, stay in the house, and instead of doing education projects, we're doing a ban, which I regret."
The bill also is aimed at husbands and fathers — anyone convicted of forcing someone else to wear the garb risks a year of prison and a euro30,000 ($38,000) fine, with both penalties doubled if the victim is a minor.
Officials have taken pains to craft language that does not single out Muslims. While the proposed legislation is colloquially referred to as the "anti-burqa law," it is officially called "the bill to forbid concealing one's face in public."
It refers neither to Islam nor to veils. Officials insist the law against face-covering is not discriminatory because it would apply to everyone, not just Muslims. Yet they cite a host of exceptions, including motorcycle helmets, or masks for health reasons, fencing, skiing or carnivals.
In March, France's highest administrative body, the Council of State, warned that the law could be found unconstitutional. It said that neither French secularism nor concerns about women's equality, human dignity or public security could be legal justifications.
Anticipating a ban on the veils, an entrepreneur who tried to run for president in 2007, Rachid Nekkaz, is creating a fund to pay the fines of anyone caught wearing a niqab or burqa.
While he says he opposes the full veils, he says a ban would be anti-democratic, and he is creating the fund "so that my country is not the disgrace of the whole world."
In Cairo, Islamic scholar Abdelmotie Bayoumi said a French ban would not violate Islamic law, but would violate personal freedoms.
"The niqab has no strong legitimacy based on the Quran or in examples from the Prophet's life that makes it a religious imposition on women. A Muslim woman wears the niqab not because of religious duty, but as a personal freedom," said Bayoumi, whose books include "Contemporary Testimonies," about the full-face veil.