Britain’s sense of identity is based on the Queen, the flag and a vague pride in our ill-defined democratic traditions and institutions. David Cameron would add “our” sports and our pop icons.
France’s sense of identity – and not just on the left – is rooted in the secular state itself. The “Republican values” of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were, in effect, installed as the official religion by a law separating Church and State 108 years ago.
Throughout the 19th century, there had been a battle in France between religious and secular values, for control of the State and especially for control of education. In 1905 it was agreed that the State, not the Catholic Church, should be the dominant power in the land.
The State would guarantee freedom of worship to all religions. Private faith-schools would be allowed. But the public education system would inculcate the secular values of the state religion.
The “secularity charter” introduced in schools yesterday is a restatement of this central fact of French life. But why, one century later, does it need to be pasted on the walls of every school in the land, from nurseries to lycées?
Vincent Peillon, the Education Minister, rejects accusations that his charter is anti-Muslim. It is undeniable that the 21st-century challenges to France’s secular religion, especially in schools, come mostly from the more intolerant strains of Islam.
But Mr Peillon believes that France’s five million-strong Muslim community – largely moderate or non-practising – have the most to lose from an erosion of state-enforced religious and ethnic tolerance.
He is right. But his argument would work better if the State also pursued the Republican values of Equality and Fraternity in its dealings with the poor, multi-racial suburbs of French cities.
Eight years after the riots of 2005, the prospects for young people in the banlieues – not all of them Muslims – are as bleak as ever. Under these circumstances, many disaffected young Muslims will dismiss the “secularity charter” as just another title for the status quo.