Criminalising women behind the veil

London, UK - So the French lower house has voted to ban the burka or niqab in a public place. It was by a massive majority: 335 to 1. The Greens and some of the Socialists abstained.

There are still hurdles to be crossed, but France is heading to a moment when a woman wearing a full-face veil in public could be stopped by a police patrol and fined 150 euros (£125). If the police gather evidence that a woman is being forced to dress in a niqab, then the man faces a very heavy fine.

The mood among MPs today heading into parliament was strongly in favour of a new law. No doubt some would have been influenced by polls that suggest that up to 70% of French voters support such a ban. One French MP described veils as "muzzles", and "walking coffins".

But the main motive behind this vote was to reinforce French identity. MPs believe that those who live in, or visit, France should embrace French values. Time and again in parliament MPs argued that hiding a woman's face violates the ideal of equality and encourages segregation. The fear behind this is of separate, parallel communities.

There are only about 2,000 women in France who wear the burka or niqab. Many are recent converts to Islam. I spoke today to 26-year-old Anissa. She has been wearing the niqab for two years. She says the new law is Islamaphobic and she will not remove her veil.

"I think it is against international law," she told me. "Personally speaking, removing my veil is against my conscience. And I won't take it off."

That will be one of the difficulties: enforcing such legislation. Initially there will be a six-month period where women who wear the full-face veil are stopped and told about French laws and the reasons behind them. But after that period a police officer could tell her to remove the veil or risk a fine.

Clearly, in some suburbs of Paris with strong Muslim communities it would be very sensitive to order a woman to remove her veil. It will also be hard to prove that a woman is wearing a veil against her wishes.

Another risk is that the ban will create martyrs. Frederic Lagache of the police union said to me today: "Our concern is that some people will be manipulated by extremists and cause trouble on the streets when we stop them."

Already a businessman has offered to set up a fund to pay any fines incurred by women.

There are also likely to be a series of legal challenges.

But today marked an important moment in the debate over multiculturalism. Increasingly the French want new arrivals and members of ethnic minorities to integrate more. There will be those in the banlieues - the suburbs where many minorities live - who will argue that they are the ones who are prevented from integrating into mainstream French society.