Paris: French police will from Monday become the first officers in Europe empowered to intercept Muslim women wearing full-face veils and to threaten them with fines if they refuse to expose their faces.
While some other countries and territories have drawn up bans on the burqa and the niqab, France -- home to Europe`s largest Muslim population -- will be the first to risk stirring social tensions by putting one into practice.
The law comes into effect at an already fraught moment in relations between the state and France`s Muslim minority, with President Nicolas Sarkozy accused of stigmatising Islam to win back votes from a resurgent far right.
French officials estimate that only around 2,000 women, from a total Muslim population estimated at between four and six million, wear a niqab or a burqa, full-face veils that are traditional in parts of Arabia and South Asia.
But many Muslims and rights watchdogs accuse Sarkozy of targeting one of France`s most vulnerable and isolated groups to signal to anti-immigration voters that he shares their fear that Islam is a threat to French culture.
Other critics worry the law may be hard to enforce, since it had to be drawn up without reference to religion to ban any kind of face covering in public and since police officers will not be allowed to remove women`s head coverings.
Many supporters of the law have defended it as a measure not designed to harm Islam, but to support a woman`s right to walk unveiled, although the text makes it clear that a woman can not choose herself to cover her face in public.
Under a ministerial directive, anyone refusing to lift his or her veil to submit to an identity check can be taken to a police station. There, officers must try to persuade them to remove the garment, and can threaten fines.
A woman who repeatedly insists on appearing veiled in public can be fined EUR 150 and ordered to attend re-education classes.
There are much more severe penalties for anyone found guilty of forcing someone else to hide his or her face "through threats, violence, constraint, abuse of authority or power for reason of their gender".
Clearly aimed at fathers, husbands or religious leaders who force women to wear face-veils, and applicable to offences committed in public or in private, the law imposes a fine of EUR 30,000 and a year in jail.
Moves to impose the law began in June when an opposition Communist lawmaker demanded a parliamentary inquiry into whether the wearing of full-face veils was becoming more prevalent in French Muslim communities.
Sarkozy waited only a couple of days before weighing in, declaring the full-face veil was "not welcome" in France and branding it a symbol of "servitude" and not of religious observance.
France`s main Muslim representative body, the CFCM, partially agreed with him, issuing a statement arguing that insisting upon a niqab or a burqa was an "extremist" reading of the Quran and not a "religious obligation".
But other groups claimed the government had seized on an issue that touches a tiny minority and used it to stigmatise the entire Muslim community, which has been accused of failing to integrate into French life.
Foreign extremists, including fugitive al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden used the ban to argue France is at war with Islam, and called for attacks.
It is hard to gauge the mood of the bulk of veil wearing French Muslim women, but two -- who gave their names as Aya and Umm Isra -- said they would not challenge the ban in the street.
But, they added, if they can`t wear their niqabs they will likely go out far less often, suggesting the ban could create a hidden underclass.
Sarkozy and his party have refused to back down and, seeing their opinion poll scores dipping and those of the anti-Islam National Front growing, have vowed to start a broader debate on the place of Islam in France.
The centre-right President will seek re-election next year and a strong showing for the Front`s leader Marine Le Pen in the first round could fatally wound his campaign and allow the left`s candidate to sweep past to victory.
Belgium`s Parliament has approved a similar law, but has yet to enforce it. In the Netherlands, far-right leaders have proposed a ban, and in Italy the right-wing Northern League is lobbying for a ban on the French model.