Women in headscarves on Wednesday protested outside the National Assembly, holding banners that read "I do what I want with my hair."

Inside the assembly, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe pleaded for a massive vote of approval for the bill, insisting the planned law was neither a "law of hostility" nor a "law to combat Islam."

"It is not about banning the head scarf in French society. It's about re-establishing spaces of neutrality and peace," in schools, Juppe said.

Lengthy debate

A record number of 144-legislators are to address the National Assembly on the proposed law, which envisages banning religious symbols like the headscarf from public schools.

"It is not about banning the head scarf in French society. It's about re-establishing spaces of neutrality and peace"

Alain Juppe
Former prime minister




The bill is expected to be passed next week and be enforced in public schools from September.

Juppe, who heads the ruling conservative party, tried to rally support for the bill.

"If our vote is massive it will, without any doubt, be the best signal of cohesion and republican determination that we can give," he said.

The planned law is being stiffly opposed by Muslim groups, who say it is discriminatory and infringes on their rights.

The Union of Islamic Organisations of France warned the law "will be perceived by many as a regression of liberties that will only feed feelings of frustration and rejection."