Britain could never debate the burka like France

“The burka is not a religious problem, it’s a question of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That is not our idea of freedom.”

So spoke Nicolas Sarkozy in Versailles during his first state of the nation address to France’s two chambers, the National Assembly and the Senate. He won rapturous applause and there is little doubt that an overwhelming majority of the French agreed with his every word. I say an overwhelming majority because this issue crosses all party lines in France. Republican principles of equality and secularism are so deeply grounded in the French mind that they belong as much to the Left as to the Right.

For someone like me, firmly on the Left, the defence of secularism is the only way to guarantee cultural diversity and national cohesion. One cannot go without the other. However, when I get on Eurostar to London, I feel totally alien. To my horror, my liberal-left British friends find such a position closer to that of the hard Right.

So does Mr Sarkozy’s speech mean France is about to forbid its citizens to wear the burka on the streets? Unlikely. Mr Sarkozy’s speech should be seen as piece of politics; he wants to reassure his party of his allegiance to the ideals of the French Republic and to undermine even further the awkward position of the Left.

The resurgence of a public debate on religious symbols in France is not innocent on Mr Sarkozy’s part. It is another instance of his extraordinary ability to fill the public agenda with new debates and new ideas for yet more reforms to maintain a state of frenzied agitation, which leaves the French feeling both weary and wary. Despite good results at the European election, Mr Sarkozy and his Government are not popular.

With gloomy economic forecasts and discontent in workplaces across France, Mr Sarkozy urgently needed to recapture the nation’s attention. But the burka and all ostentatious religious signs have already been banned in state-run schools since 2004. And in hospitals or municipal offices, anywhere where people interact as equal citizens, staff are not allowed to wear hijabs or burka, and patients or members will be told to unveil. The ban in schools was passed in 2004 as a reaction to the Socialist Government of Lionel Jospin, which was seen as violating the spirit of the 1905 law on the separation of Church and State. Its laissez-faire attitude allowed a handful of teenagers to start wearing the hijab in school, provoking national outrage and a debate that lasted until the 2004 law finally enforced the Republican principle.

That such a debate is taking place again reveals the sturdy health of secularism in France, a tradition that doesn’t shy away from being confrontational even in a country with the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe.

Similar debates seem impossible in Britain. When Jack Straw dared to state the obvious in 2006 by saying that the burka and the niqab were “visible statements of separation and of difference” before asking politely that women visiting his constituency surgery consider removing them, it provoked angry protests from Islamic associations and the British liberal- Left, always inclined, it seems, to defend the rights of liberty’s enemies.

Seen from France, Britain’s tolerance of extremist views looks at best naive, at worse dangerous: a recipe for trouble, division and painful soul-searching. Britain’s recent questioning of Britishness and what is it to be British, could never happen in France where a sense of common identity has been steadily forged through two centuries during which the Revolution and the Republic have provided the cement of national unity.

If Britain’s tolerance of political and religious extremism is often bewildering to the French, it also fascinates them. This tolerance does appeal to some French because of its sheer exoticism. French tourists visiting Britain for the first time, London in particular, are struck by what they perceive as a kaleidoscope of different ethnic minorities going about their day in their religious and cultural attire, cohabitating seemingly peacefully with punks and the half-naked: being free to differ.

What those visitors may discover later is that the price of this peaceful cohabitation lies in a constant bargaining of specific rights for specific communities in the name of cultural difference – the opposite of equality as understood in France. In France, public swimming pools would never allow women-only sessions to satisfy the demands of a minority. A public space is constructed for citizens to interact freely, and legislation written to remove the barriers of difference that separate them.

Seen from Britain, French principles of equality and secularism are often misinterpreted, and dismissed as authoritarian or prejudiced. But critics of the French approach don’t seem to understand that secularism is neutral – the State doesn’t recognise any religion in particular but protects them all, guaranteeing cultural and religious diversity by ensuring that one faith does not get the upper hand.

Can our two countries learn from each other? France could certainly try that very British tolerance and Britain could be more rigorous in arbitrating between the common good and the demands of communities. But our two systems are anchored in such different traditions and histories that we can only keep marvelling and staring in bewilderment at each other’s approaches to social harmony; both of which are struggling to keep pace with the growing confidence of minorities who, once ignored, are now at the centre stage.

Agnès Poirier, a French journalist based in London and author of Touché, a Frenchwoman’s take on the English.