When Germany's Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismark, took on the power of the Catholic Church in the newly united Germany of the 1870s, the struggle was nicknamed the kulturkampf – the struggle for culture. Predicated on the idea that no good German could be loyal to a foreign religious authority based in Rome, it was packaged as a drive to liberate rather than oppress believers. It got nowhere. Catholics scented another agenda, rallied round their Pontiff, and when forced to choose between faith and loyalty to the state, often chose the former.
Such considerations should weigh on the minds of people in France as their own kulturkampf against the wearing of the full veil gains legal teeth – and as a number of French women make it clear that they feel more, not less, determined to wear the burka, or niqab, in public now they run the risk of arrest.
British opinion has failed to take seriously the strength of feeling in France on this subject, often assuming that hostility to the veil is a shibboleth of far-right Islamophobes. This is a misunderstanding. Far more than Britain, France knows the full meaning of religious warfare. In the 1570s, Paris literally flowed with the blood of slaughtered Protestants, and the ensuing conflict tore the country apart for generations. Knowledge of how much France has suffered at the hands of religion underpins a left-right consensus on the need for laicité to be upheld in public life.
It is unfortunate that this in many ways admirable philosophy has become tangled up in the murky calculations of an embattled president, as he prepares for re-election in 2012 against a backdrop of dismal poll ratings, some of which show him trailing behind the far right's Marine Le Pen. There are suspicions that Nicolas Sarkozy might even welcome public clashes with hard-line Muslims over the veil, seeing them as a source of votes. If so, he is playing with fire. Very few Muslim women in France wear full veils. But many French Muslims clearly dislike seeing their community singled out, and there is a danger that the new ban will prove counter-productive. It is good that no major party in Britain wants to take this country down this path.