A ban on the burqa and other full-face veils will take effect in France from next northern spring after an unexpected ruling by the country's highest legal authority yesterday.
In a decision that will divide the country, and may spark fears of Islamic fundamentalist reprisals, the Conseil Constitutionnel removed the final legal obstacle to the ban by ruling that a so-called "anti-burqa" law passed by both houses of the French Parliament did not infringe fundamental liberties.
The law, likely to take effect in six months, makes it a criminal offence to "conceal one's face in public".
The text makes no mention of Islam, or veils. It is, however, the direct result of a 15-month-long agitation by politicians, ranging from President Nicolas Sarkozy to the Communist mayor of a small town near Lyon, for a ban on the burqa or its Arab equivalent, the niqab.
The Conseil Constitutionnel - the guardian of the French constitution - had been widely expected to object. Instead, it ruled that the law was a "reasonable balance" between personal liberty and the need to uphold other constitutional principles, such as women's rights and public order. The so-called "sages" decided, however, that the ban must not apply in "places of worship open to the public".
The timing of the ruling, at a moment when there have been repeated warnings of possible Islamist terrorist attacks in France and other European countries, may cause the French Government some concern. Islamist fundamentalist websites have attacked the law - passed by the upper house of Parliament last month - as an assault not just on full-face veils but on Islam itself.
Approval for the legislation, which has been widely criticised inside and outside France, also comes at a time when Sarkozy is under attack abroad for his campaign against Roma gypsy immigrants.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon welcomed the ruling. He said the decision was an important affirmation of the values of the French Republic.
The constitutional council had recognised, he said, that the Government had a right to "impose minimum rules for social life as well as the principle of equality between men and women".
$280 for wearing a full-face veil - or any face mask - in public
$55,600 or a one-year jail sentence for making anybody wear a full-face veil in public