Last week François Hollande wished teachers in France a happy new year and announced a plan to create ‘citizen reserves’ for schools: volunteers drafted in to inculcate a proper sense, in the wake of the 7-9 January killings, of how the country’s meant to work. Who would these reservists be? Journalists, lawyers and unspecified ‘cultural actors’. The president talked up secularism (la laïcité) and reminded teachers, if they hadn’t known before, that religion has no place in schools. Though ‘there can be lay instruction about religions.’

It sounded a curious note, but we’ve been here before. There’s been hesitancy in France about whether gods and prophets should be mentioned in front of state school pupils, and in the 1990s there was a suggestion that they might. Then, in 2002, Régis Debray delivered a report to the Ministry of Education recommending that religion should be studied in more depth, not as a separate subject but as an aspect of history, geography and literature. An institute was founded and Debray’s propositions – ‘modest’, ‘pragmatic’, he said of them – were mulled over, but in the end he failed to rouse the nation from its absolutist reverie. While it slumbered on in 2004, the veil was banned in schools. A smattering of material on the topic of religion, periodically updated, is nowadays available for students in state education.

Once again Hollande refers to this large issue as if in passing. Note the timing. Debray was commissioned shortly after 9/11 in a moment of deep perplexity. France is perplexed again, which is why it’s permissible to mention religion in the context of education without a shudder of dismay. But Debray’s sure to be unimpressed: in a live internet discussion hosted by Mediapart on Thursday he said that his proposals in 2002 had been ‘buried’. It’s a pity. Without a sense of other people’s ‘sacred’ it’s hard to get the measure of one’s own. But that’s not really on the cards.

Laïcité is central to French Republicanism and – as Hollande said in his speech to the teachers – the Republic has ‘rites’ and ‘symbols’, which it pays to respect. Like any other cult, it requires sacrifices at the altar, among them young women’s headscarves. There will now be new measures to remind pupils of its fundamental place in the culture, including a ‘laïcité day’ in December, on the anniversary of the separation of church and state (in 1905). Another plan is to educate pupils about ‘the media’: after all, they’ll be kept busy on line if they want to deepen their understanding of religion when there’s nothing to engage with in the classroom.

Where people stand is not always predictable from their ethnic or social background. In Toulouse on Saturday, after a meeting about discrimination, a thirtysomething activist of Maghrebi origin, working with a women’s collective, told me how much she owed to Republican values in school. They’d given her the means to think for herself, she explained, which is how she’d avoided marrying young (to escape the family) and ending up as a jobless single parent. Plenty of her ex-schoolmates and neighbours, she said, were not so lucky.

As in the UK, schooling is always under scrutiny in France but there’s an extra weight of collective vigilance: the British spend more on children’s education overall, but that includes the stunning costs of private schooling; state expenditure is far higher in France and accounts for one of the largest items in the budget. The ideological investment is also very high, which is why teachers’ lives will soon be more complicated than they are already.