France's immigrant riots illustrate an American advantage

November 11, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — As a youth, I daydreamed about fleeing to Paris, as James Baldwin and Josephine Baker had done, to escape the harsh discrimination that limited black opportunities here in America. That's over.

In recent years I have met black immigrants who moved to the United States to escape the harsh discrimination that limited their opportunities in Paris. You want to be all that you can be? Try the U.S.A., mon frere, ma cherie.

After years of political struggle, hard-won civil rights victories and dozens of urban riots of our own, Americans learned the benefits of opening up opportunities to women and minorities.

The French, by contrast, with their cherished notions of "liberty, equality, fraternity," have long held that once you're in France, you're French, as if that's all the opportunity you need. Official French government policy treats race and ethnicity as problems that will go away on their own if ignored - even though everyone knows that you will get a job interview a lot faster if your name is Pierre rather than Abdul.

Against that backdrop, the collapse of civil order in France's isolated enclaves of immigrant poverty is a repudiation of the seemingly colorblind policies that French politics have long embraced.

There is a hard-learned lesson here for the French and a warning for Americans who think, often with the best intentions, that we'd all be better off if government never took race into account. But affirmative action has its time and place. Otherwise, when government tries to be colorblind while human beings are not, minorities are left to their own defenses.

Like the United States, France is wrestling with questions regarding poverty, police, assimilation, education and discrimination. Racial and ethnic minorities were easy for the French to tolerate when there were not very many of them, when they only took the menial jobs as guest workers and when they tried their mightiest to "be French."

Over the past three decades, the job market has slowed, but the relatives of earlier immigrants keep coming. An estimated 5 million to 7 million immigrants from North Africa, mostly Muslim, remain segregated from France's social mainstream. Many of the immigrants face an oddly xenophobic version of "tolerance" in France that allows the expulsion of Muslim girls from public schools for wearing headscarves in defiance of a law banning conspicuous religious symbols.

Unlike America's pockets of inner-city poverty, Paris and other French cities have herded their immigrants into suburban public housing, where unemployment rates run as much as four times higher than the national average, which is a steep 10 percent.

New generations of restless, disaffected ethnic immigrant youths struggle with drugs, gangs, violent crimes and ugly clashes with the police. Neither left nor right political parties have provided a channel for their grievances. They are told that they "belong" by a country that has failed to give them a sense of belonging.

As rioting continues to sweep through the depressed outskirts of Paris and other French cities, President Jacques Chirac and his ministers don't seem to have a clue about all of the problems they've been sweeping under the rug. Their dumbfounded, finger-pointing response makes the Bush administration's stumbling in the wake of Hurricane Katrina look like a model of efficiency.

America is a country that takes in millions of newcomers from all sorts of religions and ethnicities from all over the world. Yet, as numerous experts have observed, Arabs and Muslims, quite notably, have integrated and assimilated much more comfortably and successfully into mainstream American life than their European-based counterparts.

Despite our own perennial disputes over immigration issues, new immigrants continue to be economic engines here, helping to revive many economically depressed neighborhoods abandoned by earlier immigrant waves.

I love the American dream. It works.

That, at least, makes us Americans luckier than our European cousins. They've built a common market, but they have yet to come up with a common dream.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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