France's top administrative body has advised the government against a complete ban on the full Islamic veil but suggested outlawing the burqa in some places for security reasons.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's government is planning to present a bill to parliament in the coming weeks to restrict muslim women from wearing full-face veils such as the niqab or burqa.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked the State Council in January for a legal opinion before drafting the bill that he said would ban the burqa in as many places as possible.

But in its report, the council warned that an outright ban would likely not stand up to a court challenge and that there were no legal grounds for it.

The council said however that the government could invoke security and public order to require that faces be uncovered in public venues such as courts, schools, hospitals and during university exams, for example.

The council however did not spell out the specific places where the ban could be enforced and suggested that local prefects who represent the state in French departments could issue directives.

For reasons of public order, a ban on covered faces could apply to banks, international conferences, sporting events and places where large crowds gather, said Jean-Marc Sauve, the council's vice president.

Muslim women who insist on covering themselves in violation of the law should be spared from paying a fine and instead be referred for counselling to a women's rights association, the council said.

Following the report, the government is expected to press ahead quickly with legislation, which would affect the estimated 1,900 muslim women in France who are currently veiled for religious reasons.

Mr Sarkozy has declared the burqa ‘not welcome’ in secular France and is in favour of legislation to outlaw it, although he has also warned against stigmatising muslims.

Home to Europe's biggest muslim minority estimated at between five and six million, France has been debating a ban on the veil, with supporters arguing it is a sign of creeping fundamentalism that must not be allowed to take hold.

A parliament report in January called for a burqa ban in all schools, hospitals, government offices and public transport.

The government's move comes after a four-month national identity debate exposed France's anxieties about immigration and at times gave way to anti-muslim rants.

Veils and the law in Europe

Despite political campaigns against the wearing in public of full Islamic veils by women, no country in western Europe has so far banned such garments outright.

- FRANCE: In 2004 France passed a law banning the wearing of headscarves or any other ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols in state schools. However on Tuesday the country's top administrative body said there were no legal grounds for a complete ban on the wearing of full-face veils in public. The State Council said the burqa could be outlawed in some places for security reasons.

- BELGIUM: On Wednesday a parliament committee is to begin debating a draft law that would ban niqabs and burqas in public places. Numerous local authorities already ban the full veil in public places, and police have powers to ban the wearing of masks outdoors -- except in the carnival season.

- DENMARK: In January the government expressed its intention to seek a law banning full-face veils, but it has not yet done so.

- THE NETHERLANDS: Several draft laws concerning the wearing of the veil have been mooted, including measures which would ban the garments for teachers and for civil servants.

- ITALY: A 1975 law aimed at protecting public order makes it illegal to cover one's face in public places and the provision applies to the veil. Some mayors from the anti-immigrant Northern League have banned the wearing of the full veil in their towns.

- BRITAIN: There is no law in Britain restricting the wearing of garments for religious reasons. However in March 2007 the education ministry published directives allowing directors of public establishments and denominational schools to ban the niqab veil.

- AUSTRIA: Social Democratic Women's Minister Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek has said she would like a ban on the full Islamic veil in public spaces if the number of women veiled from head to toe increases dramatically.