Thousands of people marched in cities in Europe and North America Saturday to protest against France's decision to ban Muslim headscarves in schools.

In Paris, women marched in the middle of the procession, surrounded by men. Most wore headscarves, chanting "the veil is my choice" and "we've chosen the head scarf."

"We live in a country which is supposed to defend human rights and to practise one's religion is a human right," said Betayeba Hayet, one of the protesters.

"Where is tolerance?" the crowd chanted occasionally during the four-hour march.

The rally, drawing as many as 10,000 people in France, was organized as an international event, with protests being staged from London to Baghdad.

Muslim students held demonstrations in front of the French consulates and embassies in Montreal, Ottawa and a number of American cities. In Toronto, people waved placards and gathered signatures on a petition outside the French consulate.

"My scarf, my choice," shouted about 100 women outside the French Embassy in Washington. One carried a sign that read: "Is My Scarf a Threat to Democracy?"

Some mainstream Muslim groups refused to participate in Saturday's event because it was organized by a small radical group, called the Muslim Party of France.

The party is linked to Lebanon's Hezbollah, a group on Canada's list of terror organizations.

The new law, proposed for the start of the 2004-2005 school year in September, would also ban Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from state schools.

French President Jacques Chirac said the law was a response to a rise in Islamic fundamentalism.

Last month, Chirac asked the French parliament to introduce the law, following the recommendations issued by a presidential panel.

Warning that "fanaticism is gaining ground" in the country, Chirac said he also wanted to clear the way for businesses to impose similar bans.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe – five million people.

Some see the hijab, or headscarf, as a symbol of Muslim militancy, while others view it as a mark of modesty and a symbol of their Islamic identity. Opponents to the ban call it a violation of their rights.