On Wednesday, French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie presented a draft law to the Cabinet banning Muslim veils that cover the face, the first formal step in a process to forbid such attire in all public places in France. It calls for euro150 ($185) fines and, in some cases, citizenship classes for women who run afoul of the law.
The measure notably creates a new offense, "inciting to hide the face," and anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil risks a year in prison and a euro15,000 ($18,555) fine, according to a copy of the text.
"Citizenship should be experienced with an uncovered face," President Nicolas Sarkozy told the Cabinet meeting, in remarks released by his office. "There can be no other solution but a ban in all public places."
Although the Interior Ministry estimates there are only 1,900 women in France who cover their faces with veils, the planned law would be another defining moment for Islam here as the nation tries to bring its Muslim population - at least 5 million, the largest in western Europe - into the mainstream, even by force of law.
The bill is to go before parliament in July, and despite the acrimonious debate that is sure to come, there is little doubt the measure will become law. Sarkozy, who says such veils oppress women, wants a law banning them on the books as soon as possible.
"If the law is voted, I won't take off my veil. ... No one will dictate my way of life" but God, said Najat, a divorcee, who gave her age as "45 plus." She was one of a half-dozen women who, in a rare move, met with reporters on Tuesday to express their worries about changes they say will impact their lives to the core.
Like others, she refused to give her full name. All said they fear for their safety in an increasingly tense climate. Najat was among those who said she has been increasingly harassed since debate over the planned law began nearly a year ago.
Amnesty International urged French lawmakers to reject the bill. The London-based organization said its expert on discrimination in Europe, John Dalhuisen, believes a complete ban would violate rights to freedom of expression and religion for women who wear the face veils "as an expression of their identity or beliefs."
A French anti-racism group, MRAP, which opposes such dress, said a law would be "useless and dangerous."
Sarkozy welcomed the bill, saying the government is embarking on "a just path" and urging parliament to take its "moral responsibility" and approve it.
The final draft text says France's founding tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity, values that guarantee the "social pact," are at stake.
The women beg to differ, claiming that France is betraying itself.
"Liberty. Liberty. I'm in France, in the land of liberty, equality, fraternity. I had the impression I was living it," said Oum Al Khyr, of Montreuil, on the edge of eastern Paris.
The measure, which could be amended once it reaches parliament, foresees a six-month delay in its application to explain the law and mediate with recalcitrant women who cover their faces, which means it wouldn't take effect until early in 2011.
A similar veil ban is in the works in neighboring Belgium.
France has already walked this road, banning Muslim headscarves, and other "ostentatious" religious symbols, from classrooms in 2004.
The bespectacled Najat, with a French mother and Moroccan father, said she has covered her face with a veil for 10 years. Najat said that because she is divorced and raising her children alone no one "can say this is imposed on me."
"I won't leave" France if the veil is outlawed. "Why should I leave?" Najat said, waving her French passport.
The women predicted that their "sisters," other women who veil themselves, would hide out in their homes so as not to get caught breaking the law. Several said they would take their case to the European Court of Human Rights if arrested.
With the law, "They are giving people the right to attack us," said Kenza Drider, of Avignon in the south, who is married with four children. She was the only fully veiled woman to be interviewed by a parliamentary panel during a six-month inquiry.
"To tell a sister you can't wear this veil is to say you can't practice your religion," said Oum Al Khyra.
The bill turns on the "dignity of the person" rather than security issues, as had been widely speculated. It was unclear if that would make it more vulnerable to constitutional attacks.
The French government decided to risk running up against the constitution, despite a warning from the Council of State, France's highest administrative body, which said March 30 that a full ban would likely not pass constitutional muster. It confirmed its "unfavorable opinion" on a general ban in a final report last week, according to the daily Le Figaro.
France's Muslim leaders have said the face-covering veil is not required by Islam, but have also warned that a ban on the full veil risks stigmatizing all Muslims.
In a country where fashion counts, and is often revealing, there is a visceral reaction among some French to veils that cover women from head to toe and conceal the face, sometimes including the eyes.
Critics of the garb say such dress is an affront to gender equality and undermines the nation's secular foundations by bringing religion into the streets. Others say the face-covering veil is the gateway to radical Islam.
The six women speaking Tuesday tackled such arguments, saying that their dignity cannot be dictated by the state, that they do not represent a terrorist threat and that secularism should give them the right to practice their religion as they see fit. They correctly note that women make up less than 20 percent of the 577 lawmakers in the French National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
"They say they are going to free us," said Drider. But "it's the state who will force us into cloisters. We will have to sue for sequestration."
Karima, 31, who runs an import-export company, said she has been wearing a burqa-like veil for 16 years - more than half her life, she notes - and "I don't even know how to take it off."