The lower house of the French parliament voted overwhelmingly for a ban on the full-body veil – setting up a possible confrontation with France's constitutional watchdog.
The proposed law, which is likely to be approved by the Senate in September, would make 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 12-month agitation by politicians for a ban on the burka.
The constitutional council has twice warned that such a ban could infringe the principle of liberty guaranteed by the French republic. Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party has already announced that it will refer the draft law to the council for discussion before it takes effect.
Several other European countries, including Belgium and Spain, are considering similar laws and are monitoring the progress of the French legislation.
If the law is approved, anyone wearing a full length veil – or any face mask – could be fined €150 or sent on a "citizenship" course. Anyone forcing a woman to wear a full-face veil could be fined €30,000 or given a one-year jail sentence. Exceptions are allowed for motor-cyclists and sportspeople.
Mainstream Muslim organisations in France say that they dislike the burka which is, they point out, not mentioned in the Koran. But they are also opposed to the law, fearing it will make ordinary Muslims feel their religion is under attack.
France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated to be around five million. However, only 2,000 of the two million adult Muslim women wear a full face veil.
The great majority of Socialist and Communist deputies abstained in yesterday's vote. They say that they detest the burka but a decision to strike down the law by France's Constitutional Council, or the European Court of Human Rights, would hand a cheap victory to Islamic fundamentalists. One Green deputy voted against. The centre-right and centrist majority voted in favour, and the bill passed by 335 votes to one.