French President Jacques Chirac’s call for a ban on veils and head scarves for Muslim girls (as well as Jewish yarmulkes and large Christian crosses) in the nation’s public schools has naturally stirred up quite a debate in France. Here in America, many people, including many conservatives (such as Pennsylvania’s Republican Sen. Rick Santorum), view the issue as one of freedom of religious expression, and they’re outraged–although Chirac’s proposal is actually typical of the micromanaging French approach to toutes choses. This is a nation in which you can’t say “e-mail.”

In an article in this week’s Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell argues that the proposed veil ban isn’t so much about religious freedom as about a clash of cultures–between a French society committed to militant public secularism (called laicite) as its route for tolerating all faiths and a rapidly growing immigrants’ religion, Islam, that has historically had a big problem with tolerance. He writes:

”Americans overestimate the constitutional issues involved primarily because they are ignorant of the historic ones. Jean-Marie Colombani, editor of Le Monde, is right to say, ‘It is no longer a question of religious freedom but of public order.’ One can prefer the American means of dealing with religious diversity and still question the smug assumption that America’s constitutional order could easily cope with the facts on the ground that exist in France–i.e., the equivalent of, in this country, some 30 million rapidly radicalizing Muslims, concentrated in a handful of pivotal cities.

“Banning the veil is not about Anglo-Saxon constitutional niceties, it is about a clash of civilizations. France’s Muslims bring higher rates of practice and much more passion to their religion than France’s post-Christian secularists bring to the defense of the Republic. Those Frenchmen who cling to the order of la’cit’ have begun to fear that Islam is strong enough to overthrow it….

“Such questions show why this law, which looks illogical and off-the-point to foreigners, is nothing of the sort. France’s problem is not some short-circuiting of individual freedom due to a faulty constitutional code–in fact, looking at the problem that way is what has led France to delay acting on the veil for 15 years. The problem is finding a way to deal with Islam while it is still, as condescending editorialists put it, the second religion of France, and before it becomes, more simply, the religion of France.”

Chris (he’s a friend) is telling it like it is–saying what few dare to say in this age of political correctness–and for that I applaud him. But I’m still not persuaded that we should force anyone to take off a head-scarf unless she wants to. I’m certainly not persuaded by the argument that Chirac and a number of French intellectuals and politicians make: that only bareheaded women are truly liberated, so the veil should be banned as “the visible symbol of the submission of women in public,” as Elle magazine put it. After all, women’s right to vote was won by ladies wearing picture hats (and gloves). And I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage teen-age girls to wear even fewer clothes to school than many of them already wear.

Rather than focusing its energies on Muslim girls, France should do something about the real problem, which is France. For the past few decades, the French have been ashamed to assert their own culture, because it’s supposed to be Western-centric, colonialist, and oppressive. They’re mortified of their own national heroes, starting with Charlemagne. The French educational system, centered around French history and the French literary classics, was once the world’s best. Up to the 1970s, French kids of American middle-school age read and memorized the plays of Racine. Now, thanks to the zealous efforts of  soixante-huitistes, postmodernist theorizers, and other assorted radicals with desk jobs who have deemed all that stuff embarrassing and irrelevant, the French public school system is right down there with that of the U.S. and Britain, and it’s arguably even worse.

Over the centuries, a robust and enviable French civilization has lured to itself  and assimilated a variety of members of what the p.c. folks call “diverse” cultures: Gauls, Romans, uncouth Germanic tribes, refugees from Bolshevik Russia. There is no reason why it could not not similarly lure many of its latest wave of immigrants, who might be proud to incorporate themselves into France–if only France were proud to be France. Right now, as the WaPo reported this morning, fashionable young women in Iran are incorporating their Muslim scarves into chic outfits of jeans and high-heeled boots. They’re part of a growing movement of dissident Iranians who are looking back behind the militant Islam that has overtaken their country to their land’s ancient, glorious, and cosmopolitan Persian past. The French ought to be doing something similar–and as long as they don’t, they’re bound to inundated by immigrants from a culture that possesses the self-confidence that the French currently lack.