The French government’s attitude to religion seems intolerant by British standards, but Hugh Baker argues that there are some useful lessons to be learned from this approach

I remember, years ago, watching some cultural telly programme, chronicling the tale of European civilization. The episode I saw told us that the eighteenth century was ‘The Century that Smiled.’ To make the point, on to the screen came portraits and busts of the philosophers whose collective thought we now think of as the Enlightenment. Were they smiling at the prospect of Reason solving all the problems of the European body politic? To my crabbed mind, they were smirking at their own, godless self-sufficiency.

It needed more than a smirk actually to instil the Rule of Reason into the French, of course. The long and bloody aftermath of the Revolution demonstrated that life is, in fact, not reducible to ‘things we hold to be self-evident.’ The optimistic smile’s tenets needed enforcing by the Terror, and two centuries later, presidents of the land of egalité are as immune to correction as any medieval monarch.

Is it strange, then, that the French should now complain about the liberté we have, seemingly, been offering to any mad mullah the French have ejected? Not really: The French understand the value of intolerance. Understanding that a society, to be cohesive, must have a glue that holds it together, they have built on a foundation of secularism. This is their state religion, and out goes any kind of headscarf or other trinket in their schools that speaks of religious affiliation. The headlines, of course, are made by young Muslim ladies who wish to cover their crowning glory; but the French offer a level playing field: out go Jewish skull caps and ostentatious Christian crosses as well.

The British, by contrast, hold religion to be a rather good thing. They see it (as long as you are not too certain of your truths, in which case you may fall into the bigotry of believing you are right) as being socially beneficial. From this foundation has been built rule by Tolerance. ‘We tolerate,’ say the establishment. ‘We want to listen, and understand, and dialogue – oh, we really do.’

Do you recall (was it last year?) the liberal suits decided to show their magnanimity by sponsoring a rap competition. All went well: a procession of raggedy headed Rastas did their stuff, and prizes were duly handed out. Then – oh horrors! – it was discovered the impenetrable argot of the winning effort contained criticism of homosexuals! A volte face immediately took place, as embarrassed whities tried to wriggle their way out of having to be so broadminded as to contravene their own beliefs.

The Smile of the Tolerant actually is the Smirk of the Self-Congratulatory. ‘We know we’re right,’ it smiles. ‘The zeitgeist is with us. Give us time, and we will argue you round to our point of view. In the meantime, we’ll tolerate you – as long as we have to.’

‘You tolerate’ are the words of condemnation brought by God against the Church at Thyatira in Revelation 2. Space does not allow us to study what it was they tolerated: suffice it to say that developed belief systems, left to themselves, become a cuckoo in the nest, displacing its true fledglings.

The French can see this: they want to keep France French, and will not tolerate any person or practice liable to upset the secularist status quo. Westminster may at present be pursuing a policy of religious accommodation, but it felt the cold draft from the Underground on 7 July, and proposed legislation about religious hatred shows that the penny is dropping: belief produces behaviour.

No society (or church) can, eventually, tolerate what threatens its own life and values. What will happen to traditional Christianity, once its beliefs are palpably outside the agnostic pale? Beware the smile!