|Critics of the proposed law hope France's constitutional council will overturn the bill [AFP]
The French senate has voted in favour of a bill to ban face-covering veils in public, a proposal that has sparked fierce debate in a country that is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim population.
Senators approved the measure by 246 votes to one, with most opposition senators abstaining in protest.
The law has already been passed by the national assembly but still has to be vetted by the constitutional council, France's highest legal body.
Critics of the proposed law hope that the council will overturn the bill.
Some rights groups have voiced concerns that the legislation risks raising Islamophobia, in a country where some Muslim women already face harrassment for wearing the veil.
If implemented, women caught wearing face veils in public places, including streets, markets, government buildings, private businesses and public transport would be fined $190.
Men who force their wives or daughters to cover for religious reasons would face tougher penalties of up to $38,685 and a one-year jail term.
Supporters of the bill insist it is aimed at integration, rather than stigmatising a minority group.
Only around 2,000 women in France wear a face-covering veil, out of a Muslim community of around five million.
Speaking before Tuesday's vote, Michele Alliot-Marie, the justice minister, said: "The full face veil dissolves the identity of a person in that of a community.
"It challenges the French model of integration based on the acceptance of the values of our society."
Alliot-Marie said the ban had nothing to do with religion and said it reaffirmed the French values of equality and dignity of all individuals and would prevent women from simply becoming faceless members of a larger ethnic community.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has promoted the bill as a measure to protect Muslim women from being forced to wear the all-enshrouding veil, which he has described as "not welcome".
But some Muslim women argue that such a law would force them to stay at home so as to avoid showing their faces in public.
"I won't go out. I'll send people to shop for me. I'll stay home, very simply," Oum Al Khyr, a 45-year-old woman who lives on the outskirts of Paris, told the AP news agency.
"I'll spend my time praying, I'll exclude myself from society when I wanted to live in it," she said.
The bill to ban the veil will take effect only after a six-month period set aside for mediation and explanation.
The legislation was carefully worded to ensure it passes potential legal minefields.
The measure is called "Forbidding the Dissimulation of the Face in the Public Space", making no mention of "woman", "veil" or "Islam".
The language was tweaked in similar fashion when a ban on headscarves was passed in 2004, with the law outlawing all "ostentatious" religious symbols, including large Christian crosses.