The move by zealous conservatives in France to push through a law to ban the burqa would over-ride deep divisions within the country and reluctance from President Nicolas Sarkozy, who ignited the debate six months ago.

A faction of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) led by party parliamentary chief Jean-Francois Copé have said they will table a bill within the next two weeks that will foresee fines of up to €750 ($1470) "for any person whose face is completely covered in public".

The proposed law is questioned or opposed by many, who believe it is undesirable, unworkable, an incitement to make martyrs, or a bogus political issue.

It also flies in the face of hesitation by Sarkozy, who dramatically placed the head-to-toe Islamic garment in the forefront of national debate last June. In a speech to a historic meeting of both houses of Parliament in Versailles, Sarkozy declared the garment "is not welcome on French soil".

At Sarkozy's urging, a 30-member all-party parliamentary commission was set up to look into whether the burqa was a problem and, if so, what should be done about it.

The panel is to issue its report by the end of the month, and Sarkozy last week set the tone for non-legislative action by talking up the option of a non-binding parliamentary motion criticising the burqa.

But Copé, backed by a powerful group within the UMP, has jumped ahead of the report and in so doing placed his boss under increasing pressure to follow suit.

"The parliamentary resolution will help to recall the fundamental principles of respecting the rights of women as a key element of the Republic. The law will respond to the question of security," Copé told Le Figaro.

"How can we imagine that a teacher can let a child go out of school and be handed over to someone whose face cannot be seen?" he asked.

"At a time when we are developing the means of video-protection, how can we think of people walking around with their faces covered?"

Exceptions to the ban would be made for "carnival or cultural events" where people were masked, he said.

The proposed law touches on the core issue of "republican values" - the way in which the national credo of liberty, equality and fraternity is supposed to be played out.

In a similar episode in 2004, Parliament outlawed the Islamic headscarf, as well as outward wearing of the crucifix and other religious symbols, in state schools.

The argument was that public institutions were part of a secular arena that should be free of religious pressure.

The anti-headscarf law was widely accepted, especially by feminists, who saw in it a boon for young Muslim girls pressured at home by fundamentalist fathers and brothers.

Even though many French people find the burqa abhorrent or oppressive, and the garment is ignored or ridiculed by many Muslims, the response this time round is far different.

Opinion is deeply divided over whether it is right - or even feasible - to have a law touching on a dress code, or whether such a measure is worth the hassle.

Around 1900 women wear the burqa in France, more than half of them in the Paris region, according to the Interior Ministry, although press reports quoting the secret services put the figure at only around 400 or even less.

Within the UMP, which holds an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, a bandwagon has been building in favour of a ban, greatly helped by a parallel debate on "national identity" begun by Immigration Minister Eric Besson.

As a result, says Le Monde, the burqa has become "a fixation".

The daily described it as a non-issue inflated for political reasons, in the same way that a referendum in Switzerland on the banning of minarets somehow became a referendum on the country's future.

The opposition Socialist Party reviles the burqa as "a prison for women", but also argues that a rush to legislate the garment off the streets is not the answer. Even so, some of the party's most prominent figures, such as aspiring leader Manuel Valls, say the only true way to get rid of the burqa is to make it illegal.

Other voices warn of stigmatising the five to six million Muslims in France, many of whom already feel marginalised or fearful of the "national identity" debate.

A ban would be a wonderful incitement to martyrdom, they say.

"Women who wear the burqa are often Frenchwomen who have converted to Islam," says Odon Vallet, a religious historian.

"Converts are generally more zealous and more attuned to extremist discourse, in order to prove their legitimacy and their faith."