Tuesday, November 08, 2005

France, UK, Canada: Delimmas and Solutions

Immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and elsewhere arrived in France between 1956 and 1974 in search of a better economic future and to quench the thirst for cheap labour in the booming French economy. The parents and grandparents of today's unemployed rioters arrived at a time of full employment, allowing many of them to gain a modest toehold in the country.

As jobs evaporated during the 1980s, native-born white French citizens abandoned public housing to immigrants. Whereas Toronto has small pockets of self-segregated ethnic communities (which tend to disperse over a generation or two), Paris has entire suburbs, with hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in almost complete isolation from the mainstream, decade after decade.

The French government refuses to recognize ethnic communities as legitimate actors - it would prefer that they simply disappear quietly into the mainstream. North Africans are expected to jettison all their cultural and religious baggage at the border, and pretend that their ancestors are the Gauls. Multiculturalism is dismissed as a dangerous Anglo-Saxon import, or even the path to Balkanization. Sixteen-year-old girls donning head scarves seem to threaten France's century-old official separation of church and state.

The French believe that multiculturalism would only privilege individuals by association with their ethnic, religious or racial roots. There is no such concept as Algerian French. By contrast, one can be Chinese Canadian and still be considered a full citizen. Before immigrants to Canada become equal in the economic sense, their culture is already considered equal in the theoretical sense. The one helps lead to the other.

Canada is no bed of roses for thousands of recent immigrants toiling at minimum-wage jobs, but history suggests that, in the long run, many of them will enter the lower middle class. France tells newcomers that their past belongs in another country. Most Canadians see immigrants in a positive light - they add diversity to the cultural scene, they spice up our cuisine, they make important economic contributions, they will help pay for the boomers' pensions. In the context of chronic high unemployment, a large chunk of the French-born majority sees immigrants as threats to its share of a limited system of spoils.

Canada had a reckoning with its economic problems during the 1990s. In the short term, many people were hurt. But our long-term economic future looks relatively bright compared to that of France. The youth of Canada have hope because they can get jobs. Obviously, racism exists in Canada, but where is the equivalent of France's unabashedly xenophobic National Front party, which received 5.5 million votes in 2002? Which political party in Canada is led by a man who plasters city walls with election posters vowing: "When he [this leader] comes, they [the immigrants] are going?"

Amazingly, there isn't a single member of the National Assembly from mainland France who is a visible minority, even as 9 per cent to 10 per cent of the population is Muslim. If there were one such politician, perhaps he or she could visit the suburbs and deliver a message of hope. Until then, it will fall to Mr. Sarkozy to ask the French people, "What kind of a social model tolerates 10-per-cent unemployment for a quarter of a century? How long can this continue before we wake up?"


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