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Free Market Fires

The eruption of violence in France underlines, for me, a real problem with free-market thinking.

The North Africans parents of the rioters emigrated to France because there were jobs. The jobs were not good jobs, but they were better than the jobs at home, and came with much better benefits. Just living in France was a benefit. This much is very clear. Nobody was brought to France as a slave. Well, not so far as I know.

It was piously hoped by the French establishment that these immigrants would assimilate themselves to French culture. It was hoped that they would take care of this on their own, notwithstanding their isolation in grim cités on the outskirts of whatever town you care to name, and the resentment of the lower middle class, which soon came to see Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans as a threat. A threat to something.

You can blame the French lower middle class for xenophobia. You can blame the North Africans for not suppressing their North African customs. These are both cheap wastes of time, but they seem to make people feel good about a bad situation.

Or you can blame the French élite. Here we find the people with the education to foresee problems, the power to take preventive action and - sorry, you libertarians! - the moral responsibility to commit their gifts to the common good. Here, in the land of noblesse oblige, we have the class that reaped the benefits of North African immigration while doing little or nothing to smooth inevitable conflicts between immigrants and locals. The resolution of such conflicts was left to the people least equipped to deal with them.

That, that is the free market way.


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It's an extremely difficult, probably intractable problem. I can blame one policy defect: as anybody who has lived in Paris for any period of time can attest, the police use frequent and gratuitous identity checks, sometimes including trips to the station and detention, on nonwhite youths. I don't see what it gains apart from generating seething resentment.

(I don't mean to say that that's the only thing to blame these problems on. It's just a very simple, probably easy-to-address one.)

I am appalled but not surprised to see the right-wing bloggers gloating over France's current agony.

Wouldn't libertarians claim that the élites should do whatever they damn well please with their gifts, whether or not it is to the common good?

Sorry, I don't see a connection in your post between free markets and the riots in France. The French are to blame, not the concept. Without access to immigrant labor, Europe would be even further behind economically. What they did not plan was the other part of immigration, the assimilation into local culture.

PPOQ: My point exactly. What part of "free-market thinking" covers "assimilation into local culture"? Answer: none.

But that is not the fault of the idea, but the failure of government.

PPOQ: The distinction is nugatory. The idea governs every aspect of modern capitalism, even in relatively cautious cultures such as that of France.

In this view, the role of government is simply to police - to protect property rights. That's what we're seeing now. It is an extraordinarily stunted conception of government, and it is bound to fail in the long run.

As a French citizen, I'd like to share some thoughts on the riots in France and on the way they have been interpreted abroad.

I have read comments in the English-speaking press about how "racist" French society is, compared to the tolerant, multicultural and integrated British and American societies. Comments have been made about "islamofascism" in the conservativce press. France has also been criticised for the absence of affirmative action.

The French "model of integration" has failed, politicians say, which is of course as true as any sweeping statement can be. In fact the situation is so complex that nearly every statement and its contrary are true.

The irony is that France likes to think itself as a "race-blind" society, due to a political tradition, derived from the universalism of 18th enlightement, which emphasises citizenship and assimilation. In this model, society cannot be the mere addition of individualities and "communities". Race is irrelevant to the exercise of citizenship. Because of the country's history and immigration past, there is no such thing as "French ethnicity", at the difference of Germany for instance, which, until recently had a nationality law based on blood.

Due to this political tradition, to the very elusive character of the notion of "race", and also to grim historical precedents (Vichy and the Jews), policies cannot be targeted at ethnically-defined groups of people. Ethnic data cannot be recorded in census data for instance (I heard this became legal in Britain in 1991). As an illustration of this, some years ago, a public hospital director was fired because notes on ethnicity were found in some patients'files.

This is what makes discussing the matter with Americans interesting.There are regular debates in France about the merits of US-style affirmative action, or "positive discrimination" as it is called here, as opposed to the illusionary domestic egalitarian model. Interior ministry Sarkosy is an advocate of it. But I understand affirmative action is still a much debated issue in the US, and I don't think ethnically-based positive discrimination measures, like ethnic quotas in hiring, or competitive exams, etc, could be realistically implemented in Europe. However certain organisations or corporations have set up informal "minority-friendly" (an expression not used in France) hiring policies. Local mayors have representatives of communities in their municipal councils, etc.

Besides, as matter of fact, "positive discrimination" already exists in France, but it is geographically-based. In designated areas, and in particular in "sensitive" urban areas, preferential policies are applied, as illustrated by the "tax-free zones" were businesses enjoy corporate tax holidays, or the "priority education zones", the infamous "ZEP", where schools receive more grants, have better teacher-per-student ratios. The performance of such policies remains unclear, maybe because still too little is done, and there is some backlash, as preferential treatment "stigmatises" whole neighbourhoods. I imagine many middle-class parents think twice before moving to a town where most schools are notoriously under a "ZEP" scheme.

I have never thought of British or American societies as "multicultural" (France is not either due to its assimilation model). They are community-based societies, which organise the spatial coexistence of ethnic groups. The rate of interracial marriage (a true indicator of integration) is low (I read it is around 1% in the British Pakistani community, while it is about 25 % for women of Algerian origin in France).

I do not have the feeling that the French rioters claim recognition of an ethnic or religious identity. They want integration into French society. Religion, here, is a secondary factor. Calls to end violence by religious authorities have been unsuccessful. Stones were hurled at the dean of the Paris mosque during his visit to the troubled areas. Those kids wear US-branded sports clothing and shoes, use cell phones and computers, and are driven by the lure of western consumerism.

To me, the problem is mostly economic,namely the lack of jobs. This sheds light on the paradoxes of the welfare state as it emerged in France, which, for all the protection it ensures, its high hiring costs, would generate unequality in the name of equality. By comparison, Britain, with the EU's largest income unequalities, it hire-and-fire economic model, limited state involvement, but with plenty of entry-level jobs would better integrate people economically while keeping them in their "communities".

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