Immigrants, jobs: 2 nations' protests

March 31, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Huge demonstrations have taken place this week in France and in America that highlight the very different ways the two countries cope with globalization.

Whether you are Francophile or -phobe, the French demonstrations should make you nervous. And the American protests add a bit of brightness to a gloomy month.

First to France. Hundreds of thousands of students and workers have taken to the streets and shut down schools, trains, air service and even the Eiffel Tower. Bands of masked youths, apparently from suburban slums, have burst into downtown Paris, smashing windows and setting cars on fire.

The demonstrators' grievance? They are protesting a new labor law that would make it easier to hire unemployed youths, including alienated Muslim immigrants who set slums ablaze last fall.

The law stems from French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's desperation to create jobs to sop up immigrant discontent, which could morph into Muslim radicalism. Moreover, unemployment is not just an immigrant issue. French joblessness lingers around 10 percent. Part of the problem is that French labor laws make it so hard to fire anyone that employers are reluctant to create jobs (which often come with high benefit packages).

The new law would make it easier for employers to fire young workers during their first two years on the job. This would give youths the chance to enter the work force. But French students want the same cradle-to-grave security enjoyed by their parents.

The French have long vacations, free health care and a 35-hour workweek. In 2004, the average worker retired at 59. But France, like much of Europe, no longer can afford to maintain all of its elaborate social welfare scheme. A shrinking work force has to pay for the pensions and health care of an ever-larger share of the population that isn't working. High French tax rates can't be raised much more.

Meanwhile, the French have not figured out how to absorb the tide of Muslim immigrants from North Africa. Isolated in slums and alienated from the system, some will seek solace in Islamic extremism. The demonstrators in Paris have no answer for this dangerous problem, which also concerns us.

In America, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have gone into the streets of more than 10 cities. About 500,000 U.S. immigrants, mostly Hispanic, marched last week in downtown Los Angeles.

Unlike their counterparts in France, the Angelenos were demanding the right to keep on working - many at low-level jobs for low pay.

Specifically, they were protesting House passage of a tough immigration bill that would make it a felony to live here as an illegal immigrant. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a very different bill that would create a guest-worker system and allow illegals a path toward legitimate work status.

In Los Angeles, the demonstrators were insisting on their right to join America's political and economic system. Many were already legal, hardworking immigrants. Rather than hunker down in ethnic enclaves, or burn cars, they were making their opinions known to California politicians.

And the politicians were listening. This issue is hot. Many Americans fear the loss of jobs at every level to the forces of globalization, whether by outsourcing to China or from the willingness of immigrants to work for less pay.

But unlike in France - where an elitist prime minister sprung his controversial labor law on the public - the immigration bill will be fully aired before American voters. Americans are used to absorbing immigrants and believe in the concept of working their way up the ladder. They just want the system to be fair.

In France, the students are marching to keep privileges the country can't afford while immigrant youths are lashing out at a system they despise. Down that path lies danger.

In America, workers are concerned but realistic about globalization's challenges, while immigrants want to join the system. Such realism doesn't eliminate problems, but it offers a chance to resolve them.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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