France’s lower house of parliament has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would ban wearing the Islamic full veil in public.
There were 335 votes for the bill and only one against in the 557-seat National Assembly.
It must now be ratified by the Senate in September to become law.
The ban has strong public support but critics point out that only a tiny minority of French Muslims wear the full veil.
Many of the opposition Socialists, who originally wanted the ban limited only to public buildings, abstained from voting after coming under pressure from feminist supporters of the bill.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has backed the ban as part of a wider debate on French identity but critics say the government is pandering to far-right voters.
Mainstream media translation: The forces of eeeeeeevil!
After the vote, Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said it was a victory for democracy and for French values.
“Values of freedom against all the oppressions which try to humiliate individuals; values of equality between men and women, against those who push for inequality and injustice.”
The vote is being closely watched in other countries, the BBC’s Christian Fraser reports from the French capital Paris.
Spain and Belgium are debating similar legislation, and with such large-scale immigration in the past 20 or 30 years, identity has become a popular theme across Europe, our correspondent says.
The bill would make it illegal to wear garments such as the niqab or burka, which incorporate a full-face veil, anywhere in public.
It envisages fines of 150 euros (Â£119) for women who break the law and 30,000 euros and a one-year jail term for men who force their wives to wear the burka.
The niqab and burka are widely seen in France as threats to women’s rights and the secular nature of the state.
“Democracy thrives when it is open-faced,” Ms Alliot-Marie told the National Assembly when she presented the bill last week.
She stressed the bill, which makes no reference to Islam or veils, was not aimed at “stigmatising or singling out a religion”….
In other words: We still insist this isn’t really about what it’s really about: the encroachment of Sharia on individual liberties and the character of French society.