Muslims girls who refuse to remove their head scarves will have few options if they go to school in France (search) starting next fall: enroll in a private school, likely Roman Catholic, or drop out.

A ban on wearing conspicuous religious insignia like head scarves, large crucifixes or Jewish skullcaps in public schools will likely be in place by the new school year in September. President Jacques Chirac (search), in a nationally televised speech, asked parliament to adopt a law instituting the ban.

Chirac's request capped months of debate about mainly Roman Catholic France's struggle to hold together the multiracial, multicultural but often poorly integrated society it has become after waves of immigration from North Africa and elsewhere.

France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, estimated at some 5 million, and there is concern that an assertive minority could threaten national cohesion in an increasingly diverse France.

Education Minister Luc Ferry said on RTL radio Thursday that a "very simple and very short" bill directed at banning head scarves (search) in public schools could go to parliament as early as February. With both the governing right and the opposition Socialists supporting the measure, it will almost certainly pass.

However, the plan drew criticism from outside France.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi of Iran said in Paris that it would "benefit only fundamentalists." In Washington, the State Department's ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom indicated it should not impinge on freedom of religion.

"All persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully without government interference as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others in society," John Hanford said.

French authorities believe most Muslim girls will comply with the law. Those who refuse could end up in private schools, which would not be covered by the legislation. That would mean they would most likely attend Catholic schools, which are partially funded by the state and make up the large majority of private schools in France.

"It's a choice that risks being unavoidable in many cases," said Fouad Alaoui, head of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, a powerful umbrella group of Muslim fundamentalists.

"There will be either girls who don't accept expulsion and they will take off their scarves .... or there will be those who don't take them off," Alaoui said in a telephone interview. "I will ask them to join private Catholic schools."

Catholic schools represent some 95 percent of private schools in France, according to Gilles du Retail, spokesman for the Catholic Education headquarters. In some heavily Muslim areas, like Marseille or northern France, the Catholic schools have a Muslim student population of up to 70 percent, he said.

There are only two private Muslim schools in France: a high school that opened this year in the northern city of Lille, and a junior high school outside Paris.

Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a member of a presidential commission that studied the issue of whether secularism in France was under threat, said she expects an "offensive" by militant Muslims to be played out in Catholic schools.

"I think there will be more cases of aggressive militancy," she said.

Costa-Lascoux said she expects to see more head scarves in the streets as a way for Muslims unhappy with the law to affirm their identity.

The French notion of secularism, which guarantees neutrality in the public sector, was born in 1905 after a long battle with the Catholic church. Crucifixes were torn down from classrooms around France in a triumphant climax to the fight. In his speech Wednesday, Chirac said the principle is "not negotiable."

Catholic leaders expressed reservations about the proposed law.

"Do not think that voting in a law will be the miracle answer for all the difficulties," said a statement Thursday from Monsignor Jean-Pierre Ricard, head of the Catholic Conference of Bishops.

He warned that a law must not "be perceived as a mark of defiance."

Amar Lasfar, head of the Lille-Sud mosque in northern France, predicted that a law "will create a citizen who has disdain for his country, feels excluded, unjustly aggressed, pushed aside."

"A law will solve nothing. It will amplify the problem," he said.