PARIS (Reuters) - Muslim women could be fined for wearing full-length veils in public in France under a bill approved overwhelmingly Tuesday by the lower house of parliament.
The legislation, which still has to be vetted by the Constitutional Council, France's highest constitutional authority, and approved by the Senate in September, could make France the second European country to criminalise wearing the burqa or niqab.
France is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim minority, with about 5 million Muslims, but it is thought that only about 2,000 women wear the full-length veil.
The bill, which critics say stigmatises immigrants, bans people "from wearing, in a public place, garments designed to cover the face."
Offenders would be fined 150 euros (126 pounds) or required to take part in a citizenship class.
Forcing someone to cover their face would be punishable by a one-year prison sentence and a 30,000 euro fine. The law does not apply if the face is covered for carnivals or artistic events.
In the vote, 335 members of parliament approved the ban, with just one against. Opposition socialist and Green lawmakers abstained.
Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the approval was a success for French republican values of liberty, equality, fraternity and secularism.
However, the Council of State, France's top legal advisory body, has already queried whether a ban is compatible with the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
DENIAL OF RIGHTS?
The Council of Europe has also said it is opposed to bans on veils and that they deny women a basic right.
Those in favour of the law say burqas, which cover the body from head to toe, and niqabs, which leave only the eyes uncovered, demean women and are a threat to public security.
Opponents say such laws discriminate against Muslims and create a climate of suspicion and hostility towards immigrant communities. Amnesty International condemned the vote.
"A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab as an expression of their identity or beliefs," said John Dalhuisen, expert on discrimination in Europe at Amnesty.
France had already banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves in schools and the civil service, although female university students may wear them.
Businessman Rachid Nekkaz, who tried to stand in the 2007 presidential election, said in a statement published in several newspapers that he would use proceeds from property sales for a 1 million euro fund to help women pay fines under the new law.
Movements to ban the garments are gathering pace across Europe. Polls in Italy, Spain, Germany and Britain have indicated widespread support.
The Belgian lower house of parliament voted in April to ban all clothing that covers or partially covers the face, while Spain is also considering a ban.
Some Spanish towns, including Barcelona, already prohibit the wearing of full face veils in public buildings, while in Italy a coalition ally of conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is pushing for legislation to outlaw the garments.
Germany, is not planning a ban, however, while a proposal in Britain from a Conservative lawmaker to outlaw burqas and balaclavas is unlikely to make it through parliament.
(Editing by Paul Taylor and Kevin Liffey)