France need not fear schoolgirls in headscarves

Britain's multicultural approach enriches our lives and gives us a competitive advantage in the global economy
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The controversy over the decision by President Chirac to ban Muslim schoolgirls from wearing headscarves betrays a belief that the progressive response to mass migration is forced integration. This is at best a debatable notion, and it is a debate in which the rest of us had better join in because the question of how we accommodate new migrant communities is going to be one of the major political issues of this century.

Globalisation means more people on the move. I find it strange that the champions of globalisation who insist on the freedom of movement of finance, goods and electronic communication are often the same people who then imagine that human beings can be confined to their country of origin. A world of increased trade, travel and contact is also going to be a world of increased migration.

We should regard this as a solution, not a problem. Much of the legal migration is demand led by employers who cannot obtain the labour they need within the domestic population. The root of our current angst over pensions is that there are not going to be enough people of working age to produce the surplus income to sustain a growing retired population. Choking off the flow of young migrants who want to work here will undermine the future living standards of pensioners.

Any doubt about the economic benefits of legal migration should have been firmly laid to rest by a Treasury answer that confirmed that first-generation migration adds 10 per cent to GDP - much more than the value to the British economy of North Sea oil.

Migration is going to be a feature of the modern world and we need to develop a political response that welcomes its economic stimulus and minimises its social strain.

Jacques Chirac's response has a specific Gallic flavour. Modern France is shaped by the Revolution, which was as much a rebellion against a theocratic state as against aristocratic landowners. The Jacobins established a division between church and state that is still played out in many provincial villages in the tension over the roles of mayor and priest. It is an article of faith, if I can be pardoned such a religious metaphor, that the French state must remain strictly secular and state institutions such as schools must not countenance religious observance.

Nor is it only France that favours integration as the response to new ethnic communities. In the Netherlands, traditionally one of the most progressive corners of Europe, political opinion on both right and left supports assimilation of the migrant communities and worries that their prized values of tolerance and liberalism could be threatened by cultural diversity.

Britain is a world-class example of a nation forged by successive waves of migration. London was first established as the capital of a Celtic country by Italians, who were in turn driven out by Saxons. Our great cathedrals were built by Norman bishops and the religion practised in them was settled by a Dutch prince. It is not purity, but diversity that has shaped the British character. Ironically, the Victorians chose a statue of Richard the Lionheart astride his steed as a symbol of English puissance to stand at the entrance of their new Parliament building. Richard, though, spoke French all his life and would probably have failed the language element of Mr Blunkett's new citizenship test.

Britain has embraced multiculturalism as its strategic response to modern waves of migration. We have judged that we are more likely to reduce friction and to promote harmony if we respect religious and cultural diversity and tolerate rather than suppress its outward expressions. While France has acted to ban headscarves, we adapted our law to permit Sikhs to wear their turbans when others may be required to wear helmets.

We should not be complacent about the results, and must be vigilant about each new challenge to race relations. Anyone who has met recently with members of our Muslim communities must be concerned at the current sense of insecurity from the burgeoning raids under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Last week the Home Office released figures revealing that the number of such raids has increased in only three years from less than 2,000 to over 30,000. Less than 100 charges have been produced by this pandemic of raids, leading to the conclusion that the overwhelming majority of those raided were innocent. We must beware importing attitudes of the international war on terrorism into the treatment of our domestic Muslim communities.

But on the whole, Britain's multicultural approach has produced strengths. Our lives are enriched by the consequent diversity of cultures, heritage and, most popularly, cuisine. And the pluralism of our domestic society gives us a competitive edge in a global economy. Even Air France relocated part of its ticketing operation to London precisely because of the availability of many different languages.

London is a natural hub of the global village. It is home to more than 30 ethnic communities of at least 10,000 residents each, and tonight well over 100 languages will be spoken by families over their evening meal. Cultural integration of such diversity is not only impossible, but it would also deprive Britain of colour and an economic advantage.

In short, we are more likely to rub along together in the modern pluralist world if we respect each other's right to be different. That need not, and should not, be at the expense of other rights, such as the right of women to equal social and employment opportunities.

Some in France have defended the decision to ban the hijab from schools as a positive step in emancipation of Muslim women. If any girl or young woman wishes to abandon the hijab we must fully support their right to refuse it, but I doubt whether we advance the cause of women's rights by denying the equal right of choice to those women who believe their religion requires it.

If we are serious about advancing the cause of women among the ethnic communities then we best do it by addressing serious issues such as tackling discrimination in the job market and deprivation in their neighbourhoods which has too often exposed such women to the brunt of unemployment and to economic dependency. Apparently, France's Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, did argue for such an alternative approach of affirmative action in education and employment for Muslims, but was overruled. It is a curious priority instead to put at the top of the agenda a ban on headscarves, particularly since Muslim schoolchildren must be perplexed at the outlandish garb which some Western children find fashionable.

The risk is that a ban will be counter-productive by fuelling resentment and deepening the rift between ethnic communities and the majority of the population. We have every reason to combat fundamentalism, but we should do so intelligently. We know that the best recruiting propaganda for the fundamentalists is a grievance, and we should not hand them a gratuitous opportunity to claim persecution and religious insult. I suspect for that very reason, fundamentalists must find the tolerance of British multiculturalism deeply frustrating.

France has a proud history, a vibrant culture and a powerful sense of its own identity. It need not feel that national heritage is challenged because some children turn up to school in headscarves. The moment liberals in either of our countries feel threatened by such an expression of difference, we have already lost the argument to the authoritarians. Ultimately, tolerance of diversity is the test of our confidence in our own identity and values.