Thursday, November 10, 2005

First of Two Views: France's Problems

Is France a socialist state? The definition of socialism usually includes the central ownership of the means of production and control of the economy, and France is not to that point yet. France still has a strong element of capitalism and reliance on markets despite the chunk of the national product gobbled up by the government and redistrubuted as various services and benefits. All democratic nations have to decide how much of their resources are going into the government and how many services the government will provide, and France certainly has more of that than America, but that doesn't make France socialist. It may be more correct to say that France has some characteristics of socialism in that the government does control a big chunk of the economy.

But because France is not really socialist doesn't mean that it's the residual capitalism that's to blame for France's social unrest, either. It's not capitalism that's at the bottom of that unrest, quite the opposite, and a more vibrant econonomy and less reliance on government transfer payments may turn out to be the best solution to the current set of problems.

But no system of government is going to work without basic social fairness.

Despite all the social programs what is missing from the French approach to dealing with minorities is a means of making sure that they are treated fairly in terms of access to jobs and education and in integration to the rest of French society.

The French government, secular and afraid of religious expression, has attempted to impose standards of conformity on the immigrants in terms of being more French, but they have not encouraged the blending of immigrant populations and native populations. They want the immigrants to be more French and to share French values, but they want them to do it in the ghettos, away from the rest of French society. The French government has combined the worst aspects of socialism -- disrespect of traditional values and beliefs and excessive government intervention that breeds dependence. Coupled with the overall poor performance of the economy which further stifles the dreams of young generation Muslims.

The idea that because the French government is racist and intolerant of social diversity that it is therefore really "right wing" is silly. Socialism and racism are hardly mutually exclusive, and every leftist government that has ever existed has included a strong element of racism and has been intolerant of cultural diversity, especially when it comes to the expression of religious beliefs. French elites seem to think that since North African immigrants are housed and fed by the government that they are being treated fairly and France is a grand and big hearted country. The immigrants themselves know that's not the case.

The immigrant communities around Paris have been deeply alienated from French society for many years. They consist of miles and miles of depressing concrete public housing where the police have long since stopped policing. Muslim young people have long known that they don't dare venture into central Paris for fear of being picked up and beaten or killed by police. Most of the young people there know that they have no chance of ever getting a good job or of moving up in society because of deeply ingrained French racism, the same racism that led Chirac to sniff that America is wasting it's time trying to establish democracy among a people incapable of it.

In the 70's and 80's these communities were communist, but now communism has become less attractive with the fall of the Soviet Union. Islam has to some extent filled the vacuum created by the end of the Cold War.

What a lot of Americans don't understand about the French newspapers and newspapers in many other European countries is that they don't have the same sort of adversarial relationship with their own countries that newspapers in the US do. If something is an embarressment to France then they just don't cover it or report it. And the existance of these ghettoes created mostly by the poor attitude of the French toward these immigrants is a big embarressment to French intellectuals, especially those fond of looking down their noses at other's problems.

This violence is not new. It has been going on for decades. Dozens of cars were being burned in an average week even when things were supposedly peaceful. The only thing new is the larger scope and range of the violence.

The unrest in France may indeed be taking on a more radical Muslim aspect, and it would be naive to think that this does not play a part, but this would never have started if not for the seperation of the cultures in France that has grown worse with every decade. In those countries where Muslims have a decent chance of bettering their lives within the existing culture there has been much less trouble.

Nevertheless, the point at which the problems go from being mainly about French policies and more about a global war on Western culture is hard to pin down. Clearly, the Arab youths who leave the dispossessed communities of Saudi Arabia to fight in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and even Spain and the US have made it a global war. It is not clear that this sort of thing has happened in France yet, but the radicals are certainly out there to push this process along.

In America, once the problems of racial segregation were recognised and aired out, the majority of whites got behind the effort to make reforms, to promote civil rights. Even Republicans, or more especially Republicans, got behind this effort, because even if they didn't think much of minorities they knew that fair is fair, and unfairness is ugly and evil regardless of all else. The same could happen in France where people are no less offended by unfairness than Americans, but they will first have to stop hiding the problem.