France is set to perform a U-turn on its pledge to ban the burqa because of threats including 'terrorist reprisals' and legal challenges from the EU.
Despite President Nicolas Sarkozy's assertion that Islamic veils were 'not welcome', MPs are to recommend today that they are barred only from public transport and civic buildings such as schools and hospitals.
They would be permitted in private buildings or on the street.
MPs already indicated that there are a range of dangers associated with a full ban – including terrorism or a challenge by the European Court of Human Rights.
There was also fear that it could lead to international condemnation, after the outcry given to Switzerland after a referendum there last year backed a ban on any more minarets being built in the country.
Communist MP Andre Gerin, head of a parliamentary panel which has spent six months examining the controversial issue, said a full ban could inflame tensions within France's five million-strong Islamic community, the largest in western Europe.
Last year Al Qaeda vowed revenge on France if it banned the burqa on its streets. Islamic leaders have warned that a law banning veils in the streets could stigmatise Muslims and drive some to extremism.
Left-wing politicians also fear a total ban could face a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.
President Sarkozy has called Islamic face veils 'a sign of debasement that imprison women'.
According to the Interior Ministry, about 2,000 women in France wear full Muslim dress in public.
Despite the apparent softening of France’s policy towards the burka, Mr Gerin stressed the need to move ‘hand in hand’ with Muslim leaders so as to work ‘progressively’ towards a total ban.
Earlier this month Xavier Bertrand, the head of Mr Sarkozy’s governing UMP Party, said women who wear burkas or niqabs should not be allowed French citizenship.
He said: 'The full veil is simply a prison for women who wear it and will make no one believe a woman wearing it wants to integrate.'
The burka is a full-body covering worn largely in Afghanistan with a mesh screen over the face, and the niqab is a full-body veil with slits for the eyes.
In 2004 France passed a law forbidding students and staff from wearing veils and other religious symbols in schools as part of a drive to defend the secular Fifth Republic.
In Britain, the UK Independence Party has called for a ban on burkas as a way of curbing Islamic fundamentalism.