Critics of the bill to outlaw the face veil have voiced concern that it could heighten Islamophobia in France [EPA]

The French senate is to vote on a bill that would ban niqab or 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 are expected to comfortably approve the bill, after it was passed in the lower house by 335 votes to one in July.

Critics of the proposed law hope that it will eventually be overturned by the constitutional council, France's highest legal body.

If implemented, women caught wearing the niqab 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.

Concerns over Islamaphobia

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.

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."

Some rights groups have also voiced concern that the legislation would risk raising Islamaphobia, in a country where some Muslim women already face harrassment for wearing the veil.

The bill to ban the veil would take effect only after a six-month period set aside for mediation and explanation.

The legislation is 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.

Source: Agencies