The French senate passed the law in September, before sending it to the constitutional court [AFP] 

France's highest court has approved a law banning full-facial veils in public - with the exception of mosques - eliminating the last hurdle for the ban.

Those behind the law argue that it will protect women's rights. Its critics, however, say that it stigmatises Muslim women and it is a breach of religious freedom.

The court found the law to be constitutional, bar in the case of places of worship.

"The ban on covering the face in public places cannot constrain the practice of religious freedom in places of worship that are open to the public," the court said in its judgment, a nominal nod to religious freedoms.

The decision in favour of the law by the constitutional council came as a surprise to many. The court had warned that the ban – which includes the niqab and the burqa, but not the hijab – might be unconstitutional.

The path is now clear for the law to be implemented in early 2011, after a six month period of "mediation" and "education".

"It's regrettable that this problem has gone on for a year," M'hammed Henniche, general secretary of the Union of Muslim Associations, told Al Jazeera.

"There are other more important priorities for France."

What the law means

The ban prohibits anyone from covering their face in public, from government buildings to streets, markets and private business and entertainment venues.

The opposition Socialist party had supported a ban in government buildings only, but had chosen not to challenge the legislation proposed by the ruling UMP party.

In six months time, women wearing a facial veil will face arrest and a fine of $195 or "citizenship lessons".

A man who forces a woman to wear a burqa or niqab will be fined $42,000 and serve up to a year in prison.  

Secular values or racism?

While the law makes no mention of Islam, many see it as a part of a wider attack on their religious identity.

The government of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has framed the ban as protecting women's rights.

Its opponents say that far from protecting women, the law breaches French and European human rights standards.

As in the case of its deportations of Roma, France is testing the limits of European Commission standards. France is the first European nation to ban the veil, but many have similar legislation pending.

The court's decision came on the same day as news of an alleged official file listing "Non-Settled Ethnic Minorities" broke, fuelling further criticisms that French authorities have discriminated against the Roma.

"Yes symbols are important.. But I don't see this positively. The same day we discover ethnic files held by the police. These really aren't good news," Jean Leonguy, a French reader, wrote in response to an article on Le Monde, a daily French newspaper.

Other Le Monde readers, such as Jean-Yves Chailleux, were more favourable to the ban: 

"Being very attached to secular values, I can only celebrate this decision."

'Paternalistic evolution'

With Thursday's stamp of approval from the constitutional council, only the European Court of Human Rights could strike down the law.

Yet many legal experts have expressed scepticism over the legislation's legality.

"In the current state of positive law, the general prohibition of the wearing of the burqa would be extremely fragile," Denys de Bechillon, a jurist specialising in constitutional law, told the daily newspaper Liberation earlier this year.

He said it would raise more problems that it would solve, and "would signal a terrible paternalistic evolution".

Following its approval by the French Senate, or upper house of parliament, members of Sarkozy's own party had themselves immediately sent the law to the constitutional court in September, in a bid to pre-empt any potential legal challenges.

Henniche told Al Jazeera that several organisations are considering to challenge the law before the European Court of Human Rights.

The European court has dismissed previous challenges to bans on the veil in public schools.

Awkward questions

The most humoristic challenge to the law so far has come from a video made by two young French women, published last week on the leftwing website Rue89.

Going by the pseudonym "NiqaBitch", the pair filmed themselves visiting various government departments wearing an unusual combination of burqas and minishorts, revealing their legs while covering their heads.

The anonymous web activists wrote in an editorial that accompanied the video that they wanted to challenge the authorities by "turning away the classic representation that we have of the niqab".

"Putting on a simple burqa would have been too easy. So we asked the question: how would the authorities react when faced with women wearing a burqa and minishorts?"

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies