PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday ordered legislation that would ban women from wearing Islamic veils that hide the face in the street and other public places.
In seeking to forbid the garment from public view, Sarkozy defied the advice of experts sought by the government who warned that such a broad ban risked contravening France's constitution.
Such a measure would put France on the same track as Belgium, which is also moving toward a complete ban in a similar reaction as Islamic culture has come in conflict with native European values. Sarkozy has repeatedly said that such clothing oppresses women and is "not welcome" in France.
Government spokesman Luc Chatel said after Wednesday's weekly Cabinet meeting that the president decided the government should submit a bill to parliament in May on an overall ban on burqa-like veils.
"The ban on veils covering the whole face should be general, in every public space, because the dignity of women cannot be put in doubt," Chatel said.
Decision comes as a surprise
The decision to seek a full ban, rather than a limited ban, came as a surprise. After a Cabinet meeting just a week ago, the government spokesman announced a decision for legislation that bans the veil but takes into account conclusions on the matter by the Council of State, France's highest administrative office.
The government had sought the council's opinion to ensure a law would pass constitutional muster. The Council of State advised that a full ban would be "legally very fragile." A six-month parliamentary inquiry also concluded that a full ban would raise constitutional issues, as well as enforcement problems.
"It's a transgression, an aggression even, on the level of personal liberty," said Abdellatif Lemsibak, a member of the National Federation of Muslims of France. "The Muslims have the right to an orthodox expression of their religion ... it shocks me."
France is a firmly secular country but has western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at some 5 million. France worries about clashes in values as well as about a spread of radical Islam. Authorities widely see the veil in light of gender equality and security issues.
In neighboring Belgium, a similar initiative for a ban on full veils in public places, including in the streets, is expected to become law in July.
Muslim leaders in France say that the face-covering veil is not a religious requirement of Islam but have cautioned against banning the garment.
The government spokesman said the French president considered that burqa-style veils that hide the face, such as niqabs, "do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threaten the dignity of women."
The government "is ready to take legal risks because the stakes are worth it," said Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
France outlawed Muslim headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols from classrooms in 2004 after a marathon parliamentary debate and, "we are acting in the same way today. We have decided to legislate," Chatel said.
Minority of women wear full veil
Numerous school girls wore headscarves in class, but only a tiny minority of women wear the all-covering veil. Nevertheless, debate on the question of whether a law is needed and how far it should reach has continued for nearly a year.
Video: Life in a headscarf Muslim leaders say that the debate itself has stigmatized Muslims, as has a national debate on the French identity.
Even within Sarkozy's own conservative UMP party, the question of forbidding face-covering veils in streets is divisive.
One of the party's leading lawmakers, Jean-Francois Cope, had already filed his own preliminary bill for a global ban on the garments — which should be superseded by the government's. Cope called Sarkozy's decision "wise" and said the government needs to move rapidly "so the French know that, on this point, we are truly determined."
Cope, speaking to reporters, suggested the law should be passed by the end of July — but followed by a six-month consultation period before it is applied.
Sarkozy insisted that "everything should be done so that no one feels stigmatized," Chatel said without elaborating.
The French parliament is already slated to discuss a nonbinding resolution on May 11 that sets out political principles, including the need for women to keep their faces uncovered.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.