Thousands Protest French Ban on Scarves

Thousands of people, many of them women wearing head scarves, marched in France Saturday to protest a law banning the Islamic coverings and other religious apparel in public schools.

Protesters said the law was discriminatory and would prevent Muslim girls from attending school.

"We can't conceive that an exclusion law has been voted, a law that will prevent young adolescent women from their right to get education," Khadidja Marfouk said during the march in eastern Paris.

Police estimated that 2,600 people marched in the southern city of Lyon and another 1,300 in Paris, just two of a dozen cities where demonstrations were planned. Organizers said the turnout was higher.

The government wants to have the law — necessary, it says, to keep religion out of secular schools — in place for the academic year starting in September.

On Tuesday, the lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly approved the bill despite protests and criticism from around the world that the measure infringes on religious freedom.

The measure goes early next month to the Senate, where there is little opposition.

Saturday's protests were the latest in a series in France against the measure, which would also ban Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from public schools.

Protesters in Paris carried banners saying, "The veil, my voice," "Secularism: Shame," and "School is my right. The veil is my choice. France is my shelter."

They marched from the Place de la Republique to the Place de la Nation.

In Lyon, some marchers wore head scarves in the blue, white and red colors of France's flag.

French leaders hope the law will quell debate over Islamic head scarves that has divided France since 1989, when two young girls were expelled from their school in Creil, outside Paris, for wearing the head coverings. Scores more have been expelled since then.

The bill stipulates that "signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students are forbidden" in public schools. It would not apply to students in private schools or in French schools abroad.

Sanctions for refusing to remove offending apparel would range from a warning to temporary suspension to expulsion.