France's Muslim Minority


Dec 8, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on December 8, 2005.

VAISON LA ROMAINE, France, Dec. 8 (UPI) — France's civil disturbances have dissipated but they have not disappeared. They have now become a central issue of the long campaign for the presidential election of 2007. The two major candidates from the current government, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, are competing to see who can sound tougher on what Sarkozy called the "rabble" of rioters. The Socialist opposition is meekly going along.

Toughness is always popular but it avoids the real need: The French must do more to assimilate their large Muslim minority. The problem goes far beyond that, however. France wants what it wants, but is unwilling to pay the price. That is true of all nations including the United States, but at this moment the price is highest in France.

France just wants to be France. A country of ancient churches (where few people worship, to be sure); picturesque farms producing fabulous foods prepared at restaurants ranging from peasant kitchens to the most haute of cuisine; economic security protected by the government through a web of regulations and a plethora of bureaucratic jobs; a right to relaxation embodied in long vacations and early retirement; an intellectually-derived worldview that politicians characterize as "the French exception." The French love it that way; many of us non-French love enough of it to tolerate the rest.

But the price for uncompromising preservation is very high. The disturbances are just the first payment for protecting the century-old secular/Catholic balance against religious Islam. And the economic structure from farms to social programs stifles growth at home and undermines the world's willingness to believe in the nobility of the French exception.

The French have long believed that they are at the forefront in assimilating immigrants. This has some truth. Individuals and small groups of all races and ethnicities have entered France and learned to be French. The wave of North African Muslims that began with the Algerians who had been loyal to France in the Algerian War, however, was unprecedented in its size and its cultural difference.

The history of the United States has encompassed many such waves beginning with the famine-driven Irish of the 1840s, whose Roman Catholicism and peasant mores were as threatening to Protestant Anglo-Saxons as are the Muslims to the French. The threat was frequently met harshly.

But the United States assimilated by adapting. Catholic churches were built down the block from the Protestant ones; Catholic schools supplemented secular education; urban police forces turned Irish; Irish politicians entered city halls and legislatures. Similar trials and then successes greeted Jews and Italians later on. The current Latino wave, comparable in size and timing to France's Muslims, is assimilating similarly. The new mayor of Los Angeles is named Antonio Villaraigosa.

The French won't do it. Minareted mosques are not welcome among the churches. Muslim bureaucrats are few and politicians almost non-existent. Muslim customs — such as the wearing of headscarves by women and girls in school — are not tolerated even when they would be acceptable in most countries.

The worst, of course, is the inability of Muslims to get jobs on a fair basis. The French say that affirmative action violates the principle of equality. But simple experiments using Arab and French names on employment applications have shown that the French believe discrimination against Muslims apparently does not.

Increasing Muslim employment is near-impossible because overall French unemployment is about 10 percent. That too is due in substantial measure to the French wanting to remain French. The price for economic security and long vacations is slow growth failing to provide enough jobs.

And the skein of European subsidies and tariffs protect French peasants by protecting big farmers. That is at the core of the failure of the wealthy world to help improve the lot of the impoverished majority, whose livelihood and future growth depend on agricultural exports now. France's refusal to change it makes the French exception seem quite cynical. This has been reinforced in recent months by France's veto of even the modest moves away from protection proposed by the European Union's Trade Commissioner.

None of this suggests that France should become just like America, where too many people are insecure, poorly educated, and in need of adequate health care and other protections from government.

But France is much too far over in the other direction and is in worse trouble. France can remain France even with affirmative action, and can produce fine wine and cheese even with adoption of EU's trade proposals. Without movement, however, the civil disturbances are just the mouth of the abyss.

“Outside View” © 2005 United Press International

Robert A. Levine is a senior economic consultant at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, and author of a RAND report titled "Assimilating Immigrants: Why American Can and France Cannot."

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