French MPs are due to begin debating whether to ban women wearing full Muslim veils in public.
The outcome is not in doubt as most opposition Socialists look set to abstain.
Under the proposals, women who wear the burqa or niqab in public places could face fines of 150 euros, while men who put pressure on women to wear them face tougher penalties.
Almost ten per cent of the French population is Muslim although fewer than 2,000 are thought to wear full-face veils.
Some feminists from the country’s multi-ethnic suburbs support a ban.
“We expect all progressive parties in this country, who have seats in the parliament and the Senate, to take this strong decision,” said Sihem Habchi of the campaign group Ni Putes Ni Soumises. “Otherwise it will send out a catastrophic message to women, catastrophic for some neighbourhoods because it will simply be making pacts with the Islamists out there.”
Opinion polls suggest most French people back a ban but there are warnings that it could violate the constitution.
“As concerns the European Convention on Human Rights, it is interesting to note that about a week ago, the parliamentary assembly representing all 47 members of the Council of Europe, came out unanimously against a ban by law,” said Patrick Delouvin of Amnesty International France.
Individual cases have caused uproar. One woman from western France was fined for driving while wearing a full-face veil. Critics of the proposed ban said she had previously worn the niqab without a problem.
The debate threatens to raise a hornets nest of other issues concerning Muslim integration in France. The woman’s husband, who was suspected of polygamy, has been charged with benefit fraud.