Ah, secularism. The division of church and state, a rock of republican France, a motor of its revolution, enacted into law in 1905, a principle as unifying as motherhood, love of toddlers and Santa Claus.

Well, perhaps not Santa Claus. Or kids and teachers in nurseries either.

Despite what the Quebec premier may think as the province toys with a Charter of Values, secularism and its laws have led France into thickets of controversy.

Just before Christmas last year Santa Claus got his walking papers from a kindergarten in Montargis, 113 kilometres south of Paris. "This year, in order to respect different beliefs and the values of the secular state, le Père Noël won’t be visiting the school," the principal wrote to parents.

Some of the parents complained that this had happened after pressure from Muslim families. The announcement quickly became a national story, and just as quickly was annulled by the town’s mayor.

In so doing, the mayor broke new political and philosophical ground, announcing that Santa Claus could go to the kindergarten because there was nothing religious associated with him.  Le Père Noël was "completely secular."

Three months later, in a case that went right to France’s equivalent of the Supreme Court, the judges ruled that a teacher at a nursery school called Baby-Loup had been unjustly fired in 2008 for wearing a hijab. The nursery school wasn’t run by the state. Secularism, the court ruled, stops at the door of private enterprise.

On Sept. 9, rather than a law, France's minister of education unveiled a 15-point Charter of Secularism in Schools.

That decision set not so much the cat among the pigeons as the politicians among the headscarves. The opposition immediately called for a law banning the wearing of all religious signs and symbols in private as well as public institutions. A law doing just that in the public sector was passed in 2004.  Another law passed in 2011 banned the wearing of burqas and niqabs, fully covering the face, not just in public institutions but in the street as well.

The president himself, François Hollande, seemed at first to agree with the opposition, suggesting that teachers in private nurseries should still uphold republican values and that a law might be needed.

A couple of months later he had changed his mind. "Our country needs cooling off and clarity. We’re fed up with bills drawn up after an incident or a court decision."

But it’s in the political bloodstream.

And so on Sept. 9, rather than a law, the French minister of education unveiled a 15-point Charter of Secularism in Schools. By accident or design, that was the day before a Quebec minister made public the outline of the Parti Québécois government’s Charter of Values.

Charter of Secularism

The French Charter of Secularism will be posted in all educational institutions in the country.  But it does little more than restate the principles of republican France as laid out in the law of 1905. It’s a far cry from President Hollande’s first idea, which was to enshrine the key clauses of that law in the French constitution.

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The proposed charter would bar Quebec's public sector employees — including everyone from civil servants to teachers, provincial court judges, daycare workers, police, health-care personnel, municipal employees and university staff — from wearing a hijab, turban, kippa, large visible crucifix or other "ostentatious" religious symbols while on the job. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

But even the Charter was enough to upset the Muslim establishment in France. The French Council of the Muslim Religion objected immediately, saying the charter was ‘stigmatizing’ members of their faith with its allusions. 

The allusion it objected to specifically was the clause  which ‘guarantees equality between girls and boys’ in school. As for banning veils in universities, as was suggested this summer by a government advisory body called the National Council of Integration, that idea was quietly junked by the government.

The reason isn’t hard to find.  France’s Muslim population is almost 5 million, close to 8 per cent of the total population and the largest Muslim minority in Europe.  The size of that population, added to the publicity around successive laws that almost everyone interprets as aimed largely at Muslims, has increased tensions and widened the gap between the majority and that particular minority.

Recent polls illustrate it: over 80 per cent of the French polled want MORE laws outlawing veils in streets and schools, two-thirds don’t think Muslims are integrating properly in the country, and 43 per cent don’t want to see any more mosques built in France.

That’s almost half the country, and the figure is double what it was a dozen years ago.

Not surprisingly, French Muslims worry about those figures and younger ones, who were born in France and see themselves as French, resent them.

The Socialist government which, when in opposition, disapproved of the last law in 2011 banning burqas in the street, also worries about the figures. The main beneficiary of the laws, the debates, the worries and the tension has been the far-right Front National, which happily stokes the fires with incendiary quotes at every opportunity.

The country, as President Hollande put it, needs cooling off.

That isn’t how Quebec premier Marois sees it.

The French model "isn’t perfect," she said, but it’s far better than the British one. "They’re knocking each other over the head and throwing bombs because of multiculturalism and nobody knowing anymore who they are in that society."

Curiously, a study published last year in the multicultural swamp of the UK seemed to suggest otherwise.

Using data from the 2007 England and Wales citizenship survey, it showed that  85 per cent of white British people agreed to "fairly or very strongly feeling that they belong to Britain", while 89 per cent of both Indian and Pakistani, 87 per cent of Bangladeshi and 84 per cent of  both black African and black Caribbean descent agreed. The minorities seemed to feel overwhelmingly that they knew who they were.

As for Santa Claus, he now knows that in France he is completely secular.