The tragic consequences of neglect

November 13, 2005|By HARVEY FEIGENBAUM

WASHINGTON -- France and the United States frequently see themselves as offering different, and occasionally opposing, models of politics and society.

In the recent wake of the rejected European constitution, President Jacques Chirac and his allies made a great effort to assure the public that France would pursue its own social and economic model and not give in to advocates of an American-style, free-market-oriented society lacking the protections of the French welfare state.

Those claims were hardly assuring to the rioting and desperate teenagers who have set fire to their neighborhoods, the suburban ghettos spread across France. To Americans who lived through the 1960s, of course, these acts of rage looked familiar. They were not very different from disturbances that had inflamed Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., and host of other American centers of de facto segregation and racial despair. As we bury Rosa Parks, it is not hard to see that France also needs a civil rights movement.

But the current explosion in the Parisian suburbs offers more than a historical comparison to America of unhappier days. The manmade crisis in France has similarities with the problems revealed by Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans. Both have demonstrated that the world's most successful liberal economies have managed to build their wealth with insufficient regard for those left behind. This is hardly a surprise, perhaps, but the repetition is depressing.

Many Americans were shocked to see how their government - to all appearances - had simply abandoned the African-Americans of New Orleans as the hurricane inflicted its misery and death. Likewise, the children of France's Arab and African immigrants are the victims of generations of neglect by governments representing the needs of France's more privileged citizens.

In both countries, the crises revealed a level of government incompetence that had been hidden. Both illustrated the disadvantages of systems that favor politics over expertise.

In some ways, America was more benign. Michael Brown, a crony's crony of President Bush, was merely incompetent as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. With France's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, it is not so simple.

No one doubts Mr. Sarkozy's intelligence. For many, he is viewed as extremely capable. Nor is it simply that he is blinded by an ambition to be the country's top leader that would embarrass Shakespeare's Macbeth. Mr. Sarkozy, leader of a conservative party, has chosen to privilege his political interests over the barest needs of France's weakest citizens.

His fanning the flames of domestic unrest was premeditated. Mr. Sarkozy's choice of inflammatory rhetoric - he called the rioters "scum" - was intended to win over voters who might otherwise be tempted to favor the likes of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, as well as to clearly differentiate himself from his more centrist rival, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Both French and American minorities have seen their modest positions weakened by politicians advocating the solutions of right-wing populists. Just as ill-prepared faith-based groups could not adequately substitute for a somnolent and underfunded FEMA, the French conservatives also were willing to cut funding for youth employment programs in the name of budget and tax cuts.

The apocalyptic images of fires in France and floods in the United States have served up a dramatic alarm. Like their biblical predecessors, they call to mind not merely the wages of sin or the cynicism of politicians - they evoke problems of philosophy. What the twin catastrophes of Katrina and ethnic riots in France have signaled is the necessity of programs that can only come from the public edifices of Washington and Paris.

However much one might sing the virtues of free markets or the value of faith, these pillars of conservative philosophy are not enough. Civilization and decency require government.

Harvey Feigenbaum, a professor of political science and international affairs specializing in France at George Washington University, is a visiting professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris.

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