In examining the recent riots across France, it is tempting to level blame on the supposedly irreconcilable differences between the secular West and Islam. The rioters, after all, were largely the children of Muslim migrants from North and West Africa; and the target of their rage was, after all, an archetypal secular polity. If much of the commentary is to be believed, these riots represent the opening battle in some sort of European intifada or an al-Qaeda inspired push to re-establish the Caliphate in the Parisian suburbs.
However, it is a simplistic reading of the situation that impugns Islam for the riots. Rather, the violence had little to do with some Muslim hostility towards democracy, but everything to do with economic problems that are largely unique to the socialist economies of 'old Europe'.
Unlike Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, France does not recognize multiculturalism. Migrants must assimilate and the state has undertaken a series of aggressive measures - such as banning Islamic hijab in public schools - to push the process along.
Integration is, however, more than merely forcing migrants to adopt some vacuous notion of 'Frenchness'. It is not enough that new entrants merely embrace some cultural affectations and give their children French names. Perhaps more importantly, migrants must be integrated economically. It is only by working, earning money and being financially independent that a person develops the self-respect and dignity needed to be a productive member of the social and cultural fabric of the society. This is where France has failed: whilst it has demanded its migrants assimilate culturally, the economy has offered little opportunity for economic assimilation.
The French economy is growing at just 1.2% and has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in Europe. For those under 25, the unemployment rate is 22% (approximately twice the rate of the United States and Britain). In the banlieues, the poor suburbs where the riots erupted, youth unemployment is estimated to run at over 50%.
These alarmingly high levels of youth unemployment are caused by a rigid French labor market. France has one of the highest minimum wages in Europe and its workers enjoy the protection of strong unions and a variety of regulations that force short 35-hour work weeks, generous state pensions, and long holidays. It is very difficult for companies to rationalize staff numbers or hire temporarily. Meanwhile, with government spending accounting for roughly half the GDP and an escalating pension and social security burden, individuals and businesses endure stiflingly heavy taxation.
As a result, the French economy produces a miniscule number of new jobs each year as compared to the United Kingdom or United States. The high minimum wage exacerbates the problem by making it expensive to hire new staff. The result is obvious: businesses will discriminate in favor of job applicants with closer cultural ties to the dominant culture, more experience or already employed.
Therefore, migrants and the children of migrants are pushed to the margins. They are told that they are French by a system that refuses to recognize the multicultural face of French society, yet when they attempt to find employment soon realize that they are not competing on an equal footing. With laws preventing the collection of any statistical data based on ethnicity or religion, the French government remains blissfully unaware of these problems. This, in turn, builds resentment and a feeling of alienation amongst the young who find themselves excluded with no hope of economic or social ascent.
Instead of addressing the true cause of unemployment, the French government has plied these poor neighborhoods with public funds: government housing, hospitals, and generous social security payments. An emasculating dependence on handouts, aggressive demands of cultural assimilation, and yet little reciprocal hope of economic integration has created the cultural milieu that begot these riots.
In competitive, relatively liberalized labor markets, the ongoing demand for labor ensures employers cannot readily afford to discriminate on the irrelevant basis of race or religion. It is for this reason that ethnic groups in more liberal economies do not face the same social problems as those in countries such as France and its neighbors. It is also for this reason that it is unlikely that similar riots would ever occur in Australia or the United States. Regardless of what some opportunists now warn.
Amir Butler is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia.
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