The French cabinet has approved a bill making it illegal to wear in public clothes designed to hide the face.
The legislation amounts to a ban on the full-face Muslim veil.
Women wearing the veil in public could be fined, and men judged to have forced them to do so could be imprisoned.
Parliament needs to approve the bill and France's top legal advisory body has warned it may be unenforcable.
Parliament passed a non-binding resolution last week condemning the full Islamic face veil as "an affront to the nation's values of dignity and equality".
A law against conspicuous religious symbols effectively banned headscarves from state primary and secondary schools in 2004.
The proposed ban has sparked intense debate about religious freedom in a secular society, and the position of Muslims in France.
The bill puts France on course to become the second European country after Belgium to declare the wearing of such veils illegal in public places.
Opponents of the ban say it could alienate and stigmatise France's large Muslim minority.
The country's highest administrative body - the State Council - suggested it may violate the French constitution as well as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights.
But it added that rules requiring faces to be uncovered in public places could be justified for security reasons and to combat fraud.
There are several types of headscarves and veils for Muslim women - those that cover the face being the niqab and the burka. In France, the niqab is the version most commonly worn.
The interior ministry says only 1,900 women wear full-face veils in France, out of a Muslim population of more than five million.