France's National Assembly began debating Tuesday a controversial measure to ban students from wearing Islamic headscarfs and other religious symbols in public schools. The bill is expected to pass in a few days.

French Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin launched the parliamentary debate on the proposed religious symbols ban with an afternoon address at the National Assembly. At least 150 lawmakers are expected to take part in the three- to four-day debate.

The bill is short, just three articles long, and proposes to ban all so-called conspicuous religious accessories from public schools, such as Islamic head scarves, Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps. Students going to private schools and universities would be exempt, and less obvious religious accessories would be tolerated.

Some lawmakers, notably members of France's opposition Socialist Party, want tougher wording in the draft legislation, to ban all visible religious signs, including small crosses and Muslim hands of Fatma. Still others, notably a non-conformist faction within France's ruling Union for a Popular Movement Party, are against the proposed ban, arguing it is unconstitutional.

The warring sides have already agreed to one amendment that would require mediation between school administrators and offending pupils before any sanctions are imposed.

The legislation is widely expected to be adopted when it comes up for a vote February 10. The Senate will then adopt a similar bill, and, if the two versions differ, they will have to go through reconciliation before it becomes law. Most observers predict the ban, which has the support of most French voters, will be in place by the time France's new school year begins in September.

French President Jacques Chirac, in introducing the bill, said it is necessary to avoid religious and ethnic segregation in schools. But a sizable minority, mainly within the religious communities, is opposed to the ban. Others would like the ban extended to other public institutions, such as hospitals.

The legislation has drawn a mixed reaction abroad. The U.S. government and a number of Muslim leaders in the Arab world have been among those most vocal critics of the measure. By contrast, in neighboring Belgium, a similar ban is being drawn up in the parliament.