John Lichfield: So were the French right all along?

France has always discouraged any signs of disparate ethnic or cultural allegiances
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Jack Straw is no Francophile. Judging by some of his comments in his previous job, he may have been one of the most Francophobe politicians ever to sit in the Foreign Secretary's lovely, big, corner office in King Charles Street.

Strange, therefore, that M. Straw in his attacks on full-face veils should seem to have become so, er, French. The British policy of laissez-faire multiculturalism - everyone can do their thing if they do not actively harm others - has proved a mistake, he appears to be saying. By allowing minorities to cling to some religious or cultural traditions, we are in danger of creating not a rainbow but a thunder cloud.

Others, supporting Straw's position, have referred approvingly to France's different approach. Didn't the French ban the wearing of the veil? They were widely pilloried at the time, but wasn't that - in retrospect - sensible? Hasn't it passed off without too much fuss, give or take a few riots?

First of all, France has not "banned the veil". Two years ago, France banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves, and other "overt" religious symbols, in its state schools - nowhere else, just in state schools.

Last year's suburban riots involved Muslim kids but also white and black kids who were not Muslims. The protests had nothing to do with the headscarf ban.

It is not illegal to wear full-face veils in France (except in state schools). You do see them in areas with high Muslim populations, but much less than in similar parts of Britain. France's Muslim community - generally given at 5,000,000 people but reckoned to be no more than 700,000 practising Muslims - originates mostly from North Africa. Full face veils are less common there than in Pakistan, the source of most Muslims in Britain.

There is a wider point, however. France has always discouraged signs of disparate ethnic or cultural allegiances. Britain has - officially anyway - tolerated them. Has France been right all along?

As in many other points of comparison between our two perverse nations - health care, education, taxation - we are like ships passing in the night. The British start wondering whether the French might be on to something just as the French start to ask whether the British have a point.

Since last year's riots, some senior figures in Paris have suggested that France should accommodate the tensions and energy in its poor, multiracial housing estates by adopting a more multicultural, and British, approach. Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, and possibly the next president of France, has suggested that the state should subsidise the building of mosques. He has called for some form of discrimination in favour of minorities. He opposed the head-scarves law.

France has always been officially opposed to multiculturalism or what the French call communautairsme: the idea that a state can be both one state and a mosaic of nationalities or allegiances. This goes back to the Revolution and the determination of Jacobin radicals to stamp out any regional identity or secessionary tendencies among Bretons, Normans, Alsatians, Catalans, Gascons, Savoyards, Flemings or Picards.

Until recent years, and European intervention, regional languages and customs were actively discouraged by Paris. The same approach was taken with migrant minorities, from Poles and Italians in the 1920s to North Africans and Africans from the 1950s. Their children had not just a right to become French but a cultural duty.

So fierce is this ideology in France that it is illegal to keep social statistics broken down by race. M. Sarkozy (sensibly) wants to abolish that rule too.

One positive effect of the French approach has been the deliberate avoidance of mono-racial ghettoes. If you visit the "quartiers difficiles" of the French suburbs, you find a jumble of many races - including white - living often desperate lives but generally getting on pretty well. It has been calculated that one in three of the rioting kids in many areas last year was white.

France also has a state religion of militant secularism or fierce separation between institutions of the state and religion. Partly, this is a legacy of the anti-religious spirit of the Revolution. Partly, it reflects an important decision made in 1905 to take religious confict out of French public life. A law was passed to separate church and state but also to guarantee freedom of worship.

Building on the 1905 law, France passed new legislation two years ago banning religious symbols in schools. The numbers of Muslim schoolgirls wearing headscarves beforehand was not huge. Their insistence on doing so caused a series of nasty local disputes, in which miltantly republican and leftist teachers agreed with far-right activists that Muslim headscarves in state schools were an affront to France's secular tradition.

On the whole, the law has calmed the debate. No more than 45 Muslim girls - and three Sikh boys - in the whole of France have been forcibly excluded from school for refusing to bare their heads. The Sikh boys have gone to state-licensed, Catholic schools, which are not covered by the law. So have some of the devout Muslim girls.

The rest have joined many scores of other Muslim girls who chose to leave school voluntarily to take up the option of home-schooling offered by the state. There is also a movement to open more state-licenced Muslim schools than the two that already exist (in Lille and Lyons).

As opponents of the law warned, its effects may in the long run be perverse. Some Muslim kids may be pushed into just the separation which France seeks officially to avoid.

For the time being, riots notwithstanding, the French-is-French approach seems to work better than the British-means-many things approach. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center in the US found that 46 per cent of French Muslims consider themselves French first and Muslim second. Only 42 per cent said that they felt Muslim first.

In Britain, according to the Pew poll, 81 per cent of Muslims say that their faith is more important part to their identity than their British nationality. Once again this disparity may reflect the relatively un-devout nature of many - not all - French people with Muslim backgrounds.

In the end one wonders whether the mono-versus-multi (cultural) argument misses a more important point.

Both our countries, taking radically different roads, have ended up with communities which have high concentrations of ethnic minorities and high unemployment. The problems occur mostly in northern towns in the case of Britain; in poor suburbs of big cities in the case of France.

In both countries racial suspicions and distrust play their part, but the root causes of alienation and violence are economic and political failure.