Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Paris (and Normandy, and Toulouse) is Burning

As the Paris suburbs, heck as most of France, is awash in violence, I've been doing some thinking and listening. I believe that there are lessons for both liberals and conservatives in the wake of the recent fighting.

First, the liberals. Those on the Left tend to look to Europe as some kind of heavenly realm where the government takes care of everything and there is no poverty or racism as there is in the United States. Some (not all) Europeans were quick to criticize the US after the chaos that erupted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Both the leftists here and Europeans have looked at the United States as a nation with a broken social model that is dog-eat-dog.

I'm not here to say the US has a better system. We clearly have problems, as Katrina showed, but the fires in the French Republic show that, at least in France, there is still much work to do on social issues. The riots have revealed what was in our faces and especially white French faces all along: an underclass of persons of color who face very little opportunity for economic freedom.

It also revealed something conservatives have known for a long time: that government alone can't solve all the problems. This is from an editorial in today's Washington Post:

It's also too facile to say that French authorities have ignored the problems. Billions have been spent on urban renewal: High-rise projects have been torn down and enterprise zones created, much as in some American inner cities. As in the United States, interlinked problems of jobs, schools, crime and discrimination have not easily yielded to government solutions. Yet until now, many in France assumed that what they regard as a superior "social model" protected them from the eruptions of lawlessness that in recent years have touched Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans.

This isn't to say that government has no role in alleviating poverty. But thinking that having "Big Government" as the French clearly do will solve it the problem is foolish. The size of government matters less than the effectiveness of it, and it seems that the French government hasn't done as well in that effect.

Now to Conservatives. When it comes to matters of race, conservatives want to believe in the concept of "colorblindness," meaning government should not consider race in government programs. Being a Republican, I resonate with that ideal. However, in reality, what works in theory doesn't work in practice. France has followed that model, basically saying everyone is French not regarding one's ethnic background. The results have not been pleasant. From the Post editorial:

[French Interior Minister] Mr. Sarkozy recently suggested that France abandon the pretense that all of its citizens -- including an estimated 5 million Muslims -- are treated equally, and adopt affirmative-action policies.

Conservatives here have wanted to role back Affirmative Action policies. I can understand that. As an African American, I've benefitted from these policies, but also resent that they exist since they put race right up front. But I think it is a pipe dream to think that Americans can just be, well Americans. For African Americans, we have had a history of racial discrimination that has presented itself in many ways, including employment and education. If we abandoned affirmative action tomorrow, I doubt that schools and workplaces would continue to be diverse and try to help disadvantaged populations. A fellow conservative friend of mine who is Asian American said it best: you have to correct a bias with a bias. American society can't just say to African Americans as well as other ethnic groups, "You're free," and the walk away. There is still the problem of inequality that has to be addressed. This is what has happened in France and we can see what happened.

Listen, I don't like affirmative action, but at least for now, we still need it. (I would mend it though to be more sensitive to help raise poor blacks and whites out of poverty, since now it seems to benefit minorities with means more.) Conservatives who think that everything will be rosy if affirmative action were to dissappear are kidding themselves.

It will be interesting to see how France works all this out. Let's hope for the best.


At 11:39 AM, Blogger Mike Bawden said...


Great post.

As an American doing business with people from all around the world (most of whom are located in Europe) and as a student of European history, let me say that racism is alive and well in all of Europe - not just France. The problem is that American culture tends to bring the associated violence and struggle to the surface (through the media) more often than it does in Europe. The cultural clashes in this country also tend to be more visibly obvious (i.e. "black" versus "white"; "latin" versus "anglo") than in parts of Europe.

While it has been easy for many Europeans to look at race problems and civil rights struggles in the USA with disdain, they have too often ignored the tribal differences in their own cultures that underly their own problems with ethnicity, culture and religion.

Second generation Arabs living in France, for example, are expected to consider themselves to be "French" first and to lose their national identity or face osterization. The concept of "African-Germans" or "Arab-French" is difficult if not impossible for many Europeans to handle. The problem, of course, is that even for those ethnic minorities who adopt their new mother country, they're often still treated as "lesser equals" by society at-large. Germans of Turkish ancestry, for example, may speak the mother tounge (German), spend their entire lives in-country and be educated in German schools, yet still not even have the right to vote in German elections because they are considered "Turkish."

I foresee these problems becoming increasingly difficult for Europeans as the EU continues to develop and bring more opportunities to a wide variety of European ethnicities. Conservative elements will become more radicalized - nationalistic, even. Liberals will become more frustrated with an inability to find consensus in the "European" fashion (i.e. from the top down) while ethnic minorities continue to try and find their voice in government, media and business.

It's an exciting time in Europe. And if Americans want to do more than stand on the sidelines, we would be smart to study the lessons we've learned from our on-going civil rights struggles and offer to help all parties involved.

Mike Bawden


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