Thursday, November 10, 2005

Riots in France: reaping the fruits of neglect

Over the past two weeks, violent riots have occurred across France, with youths from poverty-stricken communities across France torching cars, shops, and buildings.

The violence that has occurred over the past two weeks in France was a long time in coming. Abderrahmane Bouhout, the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, the riot-torn suburb of Paris where much of the violence started, summarized it best: "If French society accepts these tinderboxes in its society, it cannot be surprised when they explode."

Indeed, France has long experienced problems with poor assimilation of its immigrant populations, and is only today starting to reap the poisonous fruit of this neglect. When people are marginalized, and made to feel inferior because of their religion or their skin colour, they become angry and frustrated, and become fertile recruiting grounds for criminal gangs and terrorist groups. The riots in Paris over the past few days have been a cry for help, a bold statement by many disaffected people that France needs to do a better job of assimilating them.

The riots also point to a major failure of some elements of France's social model, and to French society as a whole. Will France learn from these mistakes? That is up to the French to decide. From my perspective, I see three major problems in French society that have led to these riots over the past few weeks:

Problem #1: Xenophobia

The French are a proud people. Too proud, in some cases. Pride and nationalism can easily translate into xenophobia (fear/distrust of outsiders) when taken too far. It was xenophobia that gave Adolf Hitler and the Nazis their moral fuel. It was xenophobia that led the Serbs to massacre thousands of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. And, it is xenophobia that fuels support for extremist groups in France like Jean-Marie Le Pen's "Front National".

A recent study by a French sociologist found that a job applicant with a French-sounding last name was more than twice as likely to be called in for an interview than one with a north-African sounding name. Likewise, recent French laws preventing the wearing of obvious religious symbols in schools have been felt mostly by Muslims girls who are prohibited from wearing hijab to school.

The French need to realize that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. If you let immigrants into your country, you have to make an effort to make them feel welcome and to allow them to become a part of your society. To fail to do so results in marginalization of these individuals, and is one major reason that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda have felt so much resonance among them.

Problem #2: French Labor Laws

In France, there are very strict laws geared to provide workplace security for French workers. It is extremely difficult for a company to fire a worker in France - a very different model than we have in the United States, where firing is gererally very straightforward.

An unfortunate side-effect of these strict regulations is that companies in France become extraordinarily cautious about hiring, for fear of being stuck with unwanted workers. As a manager myself who has hired many people, I can relate to the difficulties a French manager might have. For a French manager, a single bad hire could cost thousands of dollars, months of frustration, significant damage to the manager's team's morale, and possibly even harm to the manager's own career. A manager in that type of situation will be extremely thorough in screening candidates, hiring only those people who he feels extremely confident in their ability to succeed. In real terms, this process tends to favor more educated and more experienced workers, since these individuals have a proven track record and present less of a risk.

In this whole process, immigrants have a significant disadvantage. In many cases, they may be less educated than French workers, and additionally, foreign educational credentials and foreign work experience is given less credence than domestic education and experience. Likewise, employers may view an individual with different cultural customs or language difficulties as a larger risk than a native Frenchman - even if both individuals were born in France.

When you combine all of these factors, what results is a permanent underclass; a group of disadvantaged people who cannot provide adequate education to their children, who in turn go on to be disadvantaged themselves, and produce further generations of disadvantaged youth. The frustration and hopelessness of these youth, many of whom are French citizens born in France, erupted into the riots that have been felt over the past two weeks.

Problem #3: Poor City Planning

France's attitude towards city planning has been similar to America's: a problem out of sight is a problem out of mind. Unfortunately, as we have learned here in America, this does not work - it may allow us to forget about a problem for a while, but it does not solve the problem.

Years ago, America and France both made the mistake of creating towering neighborhoods of affordable housing for lower-income people. Unfortunately, the middle classes quickly vacated these neighborhoods, leaving impoverished and crime-ridden ghettos. These ghettos are places devoid of positive role-models for children, as those who become successful quickly leave to find better places to raise their own children, leaving only the local gang leaders as role models.

In the United States, we have made some progress in reducing inner-city crime, and making some of these neighborhoods livable again, particularly here in New York City, where policing initiatives by successive mayors have resulted in significant drops in crime. In some cases like Chicago, many towering and crime-ridden housing projects have been torn down and the residents displaced to other areas. France is yet to take these types of painful but necessary steps.

France's problems were not created overnight, they will not be fixed overnight. However, with time and perseverence, it is possible that they can be fixed. To fix France's problems will require a multifaceted approach, with efforts to both provide better opportunities for immigrant groups, and to integrate these groups within French society. Countries like Canada, Norway, and the United States, each of which have different ways of assimilating their immigrant populations, and yet each of which have done so with success, should be a model that France should look to as it seeks solutions to the quagmire in which it has engulfed itself.