The French government said Wednesday it is ready to ban Muslim women from wearing a full-face veil in public, despite a warning from experts that such a law could be unconstitutional.
The spokesman for President Nicolas Sarkozy's government said a bill would be presented to ministers in May and would seek to ban the niqab and the burqa from streets, shops and markets and not just from public buildings.
"We're legislating for the future. Wearing a full veil is a sign of a community closing in on itself and of a rejection of our values," Luc Chatel told reporters, on leaving a cabinet meeting chaired by Sarkozy.
Last month, the State Council -- France's top administrative authority -- warned Sarkozy against a full ban on the veil, suggesting instead an order that women uncover their faces for security checks or meetings with officials.
"It appears to the State Council that a general and absolute ban on the full veil as such can have no incontestable judicial basis," it said, suggesting a full ban could be declared unconstitutional and overturned in court.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon insisted the government would go ahead anyway, taking the risk that the eventual text would be struck down by the constitutional court, because of the importance of the issue.
"If we are convinced that it's a question of human dignity we can't let ourselves be over-cautious about respecting laws that are no longer appropriate for today's society," he said.
"We have to develop the jurisprudence of the constitutional court and of the European Court of Human Rights in order to confront a new question that no-one was asking 20 years ago."
There is strong support in parliament for such a ban and the government is determined to press on with a law, which it says would affect only around 2,000 Muslim French women who currently cover their faces.
According to Chatel, Sarkozy told his cabinet the veil was an "assault on women's dignity".
Most Muslim women, in France's immigrant communities and around the world, do not wear a full veil, but the niqab, which covers the face apart from the eyes, is widely worn on the Arabian peninsular and in the Gulf states.
The burqa, a shapeless full-body cloak that covers the face with a fabric grille, is worn in some areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Muslim scholars differ in their interpretation of the Koran's rules on what constitutes modest dress, and many argue veils are a cultural tradition rather than a religious obligation.
In France, the garments are widely identified with fundamentalist strains of Islam and with the repression of women in some communities, and politicians accuse radical clerics of promoting their use.
"We're not going to let this phenomenon drift," Chatel said.
France's neighbour Belgium is also preparing legislation, and could become the first European country to ban the full veil when a bill goes before parliament during a plenary session from Thursday.
In France the idea of banning the veil has won support from across the political spectrum.
Members of Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party have been pushing him to enact tough legislation, but left-wing lawmakers were also among those who welcomed the decision to draft the law.
An association set up to defend the rights of women in France's immigrant ghettos -- "Neither Whores Nor Submissives" -- hailed Sarkozy's decision as a "victory for women".
"I ask lawmakers to have the courage to back a law to protect and free women. Let's hear the voices of those who are fighting green fascism," said chairwoman Sihem Habchi, referring to the traditional colour of Islam.
Outside France, North African militants with ties to Al-Qaeda have threatened attacks on French interests if the law is passed and US President Barack Obama has made it clear he does not support Europe's moves.