PARIS -- Waving the French flag or wearing it as a head scarf, thousands of Muslim women marched yesterday through Paris, the center of a worldwide protest against France's plan to ban veils from public schools.
From Baghdad and Beirut to London and Stockholm, protesters condemned the law as an attack on religious freedom. Even in the West Bank city of Nablus, women came out to support French Muslims.
"Where is France? Where is tolerance?" the crowd chanted during the four-hour march through Paris. "The veil is my choice."
The protesters want to scrap a bill that will go before French lawmakers next month forbidding "conspicuous" religious signs, from Islamic head scarves, or hijab, to Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, in public schools. Easy passage is expected, and the law is to become applicable when the new school year starts in September.
President Jacques Chirac says the law's aim is to protect the principle of secularism that anchors life in France. However, many also see it as an attempt to hold back the swell of Islamic fundamentalism in France's Muslim community -- the largest in Western Europe at an estimated 5 million.
In Paris, protesters, from small girls to women, formed a sea of color in scarves of all sizes. Bearded men, some in long robes, also joined in.
"Faith is not conspicuous," said one banner. "Neither Fundamentalist nor Terrorist but Peaceful Citizen," read another.
Police said up to 10,000 people took part in the peaceful march, while several thousand others protested in a half-dozen cities around the country.
Critics of the law claim it will stigmatize France's Muslims. French authorities contend the principle of secularism is meant to make everybody equal.
"I think it will make things worse," Kods Mejry, 18, said. "There will be no more integration."
Her blue, white, and red scarf matching the French flag was meant "to show that we are French and Muslim and proud of it."
"Lots of girls will leave school. Others will take their scarves off," said Myriam Diaou, of the Union of Muslims of Trappes, southwest of Paris. "It will reinforce the sense of exclusion."
In London, 2,400 people demonstrated near the French Embassy in the upscale Knightsbridge area. Waving placards, they chanted: "If this is democracy, we say `No, merci!' "
"The government is isolating Muslims and setting a dangerous precedent," said Ihtisham Hibatullah, spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain.
Nearby, a small rival group of about 30 demonstrators expressed support for the French ban.
Mike O'Brien, Britain's Foreign Office minister, said the British government supports the right to display religious symbols.
"In Britain, we are comfortable with the expression of religion, seen in the wearing of the hijab, crucifixes, or the kippa," or skullcap, O'Brien said in a statement. "Integration does not require assimilation."
Across the Middle East, protesters denounced the French plan. The largest turnout was in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where some 2,500 people marched.
In Nablus, 300 Palestinian women protested.
"As a people who have been oppressed, we know what it means for others in the world who are denied their freedom," said Salam Ghazal, head of a local women's group.
In Iraq, an Islamic group distributed an open letter to Chirac in mosques that called on him to reverse his position, while dozens of male and female students demonstrated at Baghdad's Al Mustansiriya University.