First the French President stood up to George W Bush, the most powerful man on the planet, over the war in Iraq. Now he is heading for a showdown with France's fastest–growing religion, Islam. In mid–December Chirac announced that he would support a ban on wearing headscarves in state schools. The decision came after the specially established Committee for the Consideration of the Application of Secularism in the Republic recommended that the display of any "conspicuous" religious symbols should be proscribed in state institutions, particularly those charged with educating young French citizens.

Tension has been mounting for almost fifteen years, since the first French Muslim was expelled from school for wearing a hijab in class. Those who are in favour of the ban see headscarves as an affront to secular French culture — and a silent provocation of the state. Muslims who insist on the right to choose what they wear, even if it sets them apart from the rest of society, see any restriction as a form of religious persecution.

Repercussions are beginning to extend beyond France. Commentators in the English–speaking world are mystified by the heavy–handed way in which the French state is trying to impose a dress code on Muslim girls. "What happened to personal liberty and freedom of expression?" they ask, missing the point that headscarves are not a symbol of individuality, but a sign that one belongs to a religious community removed from the rest of society.

Mainstream Islam, let alone the fundamentalist kind, does not allow for the separation of public and private, politics and personal creed. The requirement to wear the hijab is based on religious teaching that encourages conformity and obedience, rather than individual self–expression.

This is seen as unacceptable in a country proud of its secular tradition, where allegiance to the nation comes before anything else. The logic of French secularism requires that religion plays no part in public life.

The new edict attempts to avoid any accusation of racism by including all forms of religious symbolic dress. The tolerance of crucifixes and skullcaps to date is an oversight, rather than an exception.

With over five million Muslims in France today — almost a tenth of the population — secularism has taken on a significance unknown since revolutionary times, when Catholic clerics were viewed as being in agents of the twin oppressors in Rome and Versailles.

Thus France is particularly sensitive to the possibility of a 'state within the state' — a minority that does not adhere to the constitutional principle which dictates that France is an "indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic".

But while the donning of headscarves is a symptom of collective disengagement from the mainstream of French society, it is not the cause. Banning them in public buildings will do little to integrate Arab immigrants. It is more likely that Muslims will be even more alienated and withdraw further from public life. Besides, headscarves, symbolically charged as they are, are not the real problem. The problem is what is in the head being covered. And those not being covered.

When the Committee report talked of "extremist groups [...] testing the resistance of the Republic and pushing certain young people to reject France and its values," it can hardly have meant hijab–wearing schoolgirls. Rather, the reference was to those disaffected banlieue youths who engage police in seasonal riot. Or the French–born Arab football supporters who stormed the pitch shouting Islamist slogans and pelting political dignitaries with bottles at a friendly football match between France and Algeria three years ago.

Over the last ten years, juvenile crime has almost doubled. Growing unemployment and the rise of far–right parties like Le Pen's Front Nationale are driving more and more young banlieusards into the arms of extremist groups, many of which have an Islamist political agenda. More important than headscarves is the need to address the social and political exclusion felt by immigrant communities in France today.

Although they constitute a substantial minority — in some banlieues a majority — Arab immigrants still play very little role in public life. There is, for example, not a single Arab delegate to the National Assembly. Instead of dictating what Muslim girls wear to school, the guardians of the Republic would do better to appeal to Muslims to recognise that they are better off under a secular French state than under most other regimes. French Muslims, in turn, have to decide whether they agree to be bound by the secular contract between citizen and state that protects their minority status.

It is accepted that French people do not display their religion — and those who do are not French. Muslims are challenged to develop a modern, European form of Islam that embraces liberté, egalité, fraternité and seek an enlightened way of expressing their faith and coexisting with others.

The discussion will be similar, though slightly different, in Germany, the UK, Italy and the rest of Europe. But France, with the largest Muslim population, leads the way, and the outcome of this new move is likely to be pivotal.

The purpose of eighteenth and nineteenth century laïcisme was not to curtail religion, but to limit the political power of its evangelists. The danger of applying it too rigidly in the twenty–first century is that it will increase the power of political Islam, and create the very state–within–a–state that La Grande Nation so fears.