France's Lower House of Parliament on Tuesday voted to ban the wearing of the burqa and the niqab or full face Muslim veil in public. The law was passed by 335 votes, cast almost exclusively by President Sarkozy's ruling right wing coalition.

The opposition Socialists and the Greens stayed away from the vote which however won the support of a small opposition party called Radicals of the Left. Of the Communists, only one deputy, Andre Gerin originally who tabled the draft law, voted in favour.

The Senate will examine the legislation in September after the summer break.

If adopted by both Houses, the law will fine any woman refusing to respect the ban €150. The offender is also likely to be sent for classes in civic education.

But the future of the Bill remains uncertain, since it will also have to be examined by the Constitutional Council to determine whether or not it violates the provisos pertaining to the freedom of speech, faith or dress.

The lawmakers significantly adopted the Bill on the eve of France's national holiday, Bastille Day, which commemorates the start of the French Revolution of 1789, and which many see as the symbol of France's republican values, especially the strict separation of religion and state.

Justice minister Michele Alliot-Marie introducing the bill said it was aimed at better integrating Muslim women into French society. “Wearing the niqabor the burqaamounts to being cut off from society and rejecting the very spirit of the French republic that is founded on a desire to live together,” she said.

However, critics said the legislation would force these women into greater isolation. They also claim it breaches French and European human rights legislation.

Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said the law would unfairly target women who are already living difficult lives. Only about 1,900 women among France's five to six million Muslims wear a veil.

Patrick Weil, a researcher who has written at length on immigration and identity told The Hinduthat the law was an attempt to woo anti-immigration voters and to distract attention from France's economic problems.

Correction and Clarification

The fourth paragraph of the above report said: “If adopted by both Houses, the law will fine any woman refusing to respect the ban €150. The offender is also likely to be sent for classes in civic education.”

The writer clarifies: The new law not only envisages fines of €150 (£119) for women who break the law, but also has a fine of €30,000 and a one-year jail term for men who force their wives to wear the burqa. However, this part of the law is far more complex to apply since it is difficult to prove that the woman was being coerced except if she herself complains. Evidence shows that 90 per cent of the 1,900 women known to be sporting the burqa in France do so of their own volition.

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