The text, put forward by President Jacques Chirac's ruling centre-right party and supported by the left-wing opposition Socialists, was adopted by a vote of 494 to 36. 

It will now be sent to the parliament's upper house, the Senate, where Chirac's UMP party has a large majority and is expected to become law well in time for the start of the next school year in September. 

The bill makes it illegal to wear clothes or signs that "conspicuously" display affiliation to a faith. 

Though it does not specify the items that would be barred, an experts' report listed the Jewish skullcap and "large" Christian crosses in addition to the Islamic headscarf.

Sikh turbans are also likely to be included and Education
Minister Luc Ferry has said bandanas and even beards could be barred if worn with the wrong intent. 

Support

The measure has the support of about 70% of the French population and is strongly backed by teachers. 

The Socialist opposition wanted the text to be toughened -with "visible" replacing "conspicuous" - but agreed to vote in favour after the UMP promised a review of the law in a year. 

Controversial ban has sparked
global demonstrations

The government hopes the law will uphold France's tradition of secularity - a strict separation of church and state that it argues promotes an ideal of French republicanism and brings together citizens from different backgrounds by filtering out religious differences. 

But some of France's Muslims have held demonstrations against the bill, as have some of the country's generally discreet 7000 Sikhs. 

France, known around the world as a promoter of human rights, has taken a step backwards with this law. It is getting closer to being a banana republic," the head of the Party of France's Muslims, Muhammad Latreche, said in a statement after the vote.

He added the legislation would "institutionalise
Islamophobia" and recalled the Vichy-era law requiring Jews to wear a yellow star.

Open wound

The head of the mosque in Lyon and a politician for that region, Kamal Kabtane, said a ban on headscarves in schools would open a "wound which would take a long time to close."

Renowned French Muslim intellectual Roger Garaudy told Aljazeera.net that "Since September 11 the US has been launching a real crusade against Muslims.

 "What is happening now is the symptoms of the French obedience to the US," said Garaudy. "It is anti-nationalistic."

On Monday, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, based in Austria, said it was against the French bill because it believed it violated human rights. 

A US group, the Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises Congress, the White House and State Department, said it, too, believed the proposed law could violate international human rights standards.

'Infringement on human rights'

Last month, Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, grand mufti Shaikh Abd al-Aziz al-Shaikh, said: "interfering in the affairs of Muslims regarding the headscarf is an infringement on the human rights that they (French) say they are defending." 

"The Muslim community is going to feel stigmatised. The law
will not treat the evil
at its source - that is
to say the problem
of integration." 

Alain Madelin,
Leader of the liberal wing
of the UMP

A small minority of French deputies have expressed their doubts about the law, calling it unnecessary, unworkable and liable to inflame sentiment among a section of the population that already feels victimised.

"The Muslim community is going to feel stigmatised. The law will not treat the evil at its source - that is to say the problem of integration. That is the big mistake of a law that has set off this national psychodrama over secularism," said Alain Madelin, who heads the liberal wing of the UMP.

'Guests'

But Jallul Siddiqi , general secretary  of the pro-government Institute of the Grand Mosque of Paris insisted the Hijab was required for women by religion, but he said Muslim minority should respect the law of the country. "We are guests to this country and we should give a good image about Islam by respecting the laws," Siddiqi told Aljazeera.net

The issue has been blown out of proportion said Siddiqi, "Hijab is banned in Tunisa why there is not the same outcry there?

"We have bigger problems as a Muslim community in France.  Our concerns include combating unemployment among Muslim youth, educating imams and building mosques."

"The hijab issue is trivial compared to our other problems," he pointed out.