The French leader's move also brought a denunciation from one of Lebanon's leading Shia figures, Muhammad Hussain Fadl Allah, who called it an "attack on Muslim human rights".

The girls, responding to a call from the Lebanese Muslim students' league, and most wearing headscarves, carried banners saying in Arabic and English: "Secularism is an attack on the hijab (headscarf)," and: "Prohibition of the Islamic veil - the true face of a naked France".
 
A third banner said: "The veil is not a religious symbol but a divine command".
 
The demonstrators distributed an open letter to Chirac in which they declared themselves to be "shocked" and wondering how the quintessential French virtues of liberty and equality could be associated with prohibiting women the right to decide what they wear.

It pointed out that, unlike the Jewish kippa (skullcap) or the Christian cross, the veil is a "ritual act mentioned in the Quran just like prayer and fasting."
 
It asked Chirac to "reconsider this decision, which attacks the personal liberty that you respect and that represents a genuine discrimination, something against which you never cease to fight."

Ban institutionalised

Ignoring loud warnings that it will alienate France's five-million-strong Muslim minority, Chirac on Wednesday came out in favour of a ban on the Islamic headscarf in schools, which he wants written into law by the start of the next academic year.

Chirac wants the ban formalised
by start of next academic year

"The Islamic veil - whatever name we give it - the kippa and a cross that is of plainly excessive dimensions: these have no place in the precincts of state schools. State schools will remain secular. For that a law is necessary," he said.

He was speaking in response to the key finding of the so-called Stasi committee of experts, headed by former cabinet minister, Bernard Stasi, which last week recommended banning "conspicuous" religious insignia from the classroom.

In a statement to the press, Fadl Allah echoed the students, saying that "wearing the veil is not a symbol of Islam, but is as much a religious commitment as other religious duties, and not to wear it is a sin."

Violates freedom

He praised France for its record in supporting human rights, and Chirac in particular for his stand on behalf of Arab and Lebanese causes, but said banning the veil "confiscates the freedom of Muslim women in schools, in society and in public administration."

Criticising secularism, he said it had sunk to "such a level of weakness that its patrons fear that a wisp of fabric or a kippa on the head, or a cross on the breast will harm it. That is an argument that has no sense."

If the measure is adopted, Fadl Allah said, there will be a "great number of complications."

"We do not want to mix ourselves up in internal French affairs," he said, "but we Muslims ... believe in dialogue, especially when matters touch on Muslims, their future and their vital problems."