The National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, will begin a three-day debate on Tuesday. Last week the French cabinet approved a draft law that would ban the hijab, or Muslim veil, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from public schools.

It is likely to be passed in time for the start of the new school year in September.

Much of the debate has focused on the Muslim hijab, with France's Muslim population standing at about five million, the largest in Western Europe.

It would not apply to students in private schools or to French schools in other countries.

Under the legislation, sanctions for refusing to remove conspicuous religious signs would range from a warning, to temporary suspension from school, to expulsion.

The planned law has drawn strong criticism from some Muslims in France and in other countries. Some lawmakers have already said they would abstain or oppose the bill in the scheduled 10 February lower house vote.

The legislation is a culmination of 15 years of often bitter debate over wearing the hijab in classes.

However, schools have been left to decide whether to take action against those who flout the rules and to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Lawyer fights back

One parent is appealing a decision to bar his Muslim daughters for wearing headscarves.

Alma Levy-Omari (L) and her
sister Lila (R) study at home

Lawyer Laurent Levy said on Monday he would fight a decision by his local school district to ban his daughters Lila, 19, and Alma, 16, from their high school in the suburb of Aubervilliers north of Paris.

The teenagers became interested in Islam recently and began wearing the hijab. Their mother is a non-practising Muslim of Algerian origin and their father an atheist of Jewish origin. 

Levy, who has worked for an anti-racism group, said the law would exacerbate the sense of alienation felt by many children of immigrants, which has been blamed for a rise in anti-Semitism in France.

Although the law covers a variety of symbols, its main purpose is banning the hijab, he said. Levy has two months to file his appeal. In the meantime, his daughters are being schooled at home.