Jacques Chirac on May 22th, in a speech during the 60th anniversary of the CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France) [retranscription from Netlexblog, translated in English by votre serviteur below]:
"La laïcité est une valeur d'une extraordinaire modernité tant elle exprime cet esprit de tolérance, de respect et de dialogue qui doit plus que jamais prévaloir. Elle est un principe sur lequel nous ne transigerons pas".(...)
"La France n'est pas, et ne sera jamais, une juxtaposition de communautés avec ses rivalités et ses antagonismes." Dans la "République une et indivisible"(...) "nul, au motif de ses racines ou de ses croyances, n'est fondé à se prévaloir, pour lui ou sa communauté, de droits particuliers".
"Secularism is a value of outstanding modernity in that it expresses this spirit of tolerance, respect and dialogue that must definitely prevail. It is a principle on which we will not compromise. (...) France is not, and will never be, a juxtaposition of communities with their rivalries and antagonisms. In the Republic, "one and indivisible" (...), no one, on the basis of their roots or beliefs, is founded to claim for themselves or for their community, any particular right."
Let alone any political feeling towards the French president, I find those words very useful to illustrate a value that has been a deep part of France's political (in a noble sense) and even intellectual genome for centuries: l'universalité (universality). This value is at the core of our constitution, has deep consequences on our laws and political system and is singular in that it is not shared by many other countries, when it is not the complete opposite of other models, found notably in religious countries and, you guessed, anglo-saxon countries.
That Chirac pointed secularity (la laïcité) in front of the most prominent Jewish organization in France, is not innocent -- and not targeted to one religion in particular but falling handy at a time where debates around Islam and the Chador are raging here. The separation between the State and the Church is considered as a key basis for a democracy since the French revolution, and it never hurts to be remembered that (I am anxious to see what kind of regime will take place in Irak and its exact relations towards any religion). This explains why the French will naturally react very negatively to religious claims and references publicly expressed by a representant of a democracy (I personally find Bush's ones particularly outrageous), while they will respect that as personal beliefs. Ironically, this should be enough to ridicule the pestilential views of former French president Giscard d'Estaing who recently pictured Europe as a Christian-club, in an effort to undermine its expansion to countries that are not orthodox enough for him (e.g. Turkey).
Expand the religion further to roots and beliefs, or culture and traditions, and here comes the true differentiator. This country has no particular attention to communities. It is not that they aren't any, they are plenty: immigrants, religions, gays, whatever. But our constitution does not have the notion of communities, civil and penal laws apply equally to every single citizen with the sole exception of "positive discrimination" based on objective differences (e.g. only women can get pregnant and give birth, so women deserve additional social care). All citizens being equal within the République, une et indivisible. Of course this sounds a bit of a 1789 "idéal révolutionnaire" caricature, and seems to be challenged everyday in front of our numerous corporations and plethora of different social regimes, and yet it is very real, built-in in the true democratic constituents of this country as a protection to ensure that freedom is not the privilege of a few, and that freedom goes along with equality to form strong pillars to build a democracy.
This why France has played an influential role among democracies, why it has been seen as both enlightening and arrogant for centuries, why, I think, it will continue to inspire and infuriate generations of people for the sake of democracy, and surely one of many reasons why I love this country.
Vive la France, universelle.