France has an assimilation, not immigration, problem
The terrorist attacks against the media, Jewish people and police in France this week are deplorable and will be analyzed for years to come.
They also illustrate significant underlying differences between the European Union and North America and should spark serious soul-searching, notably in France.
The U.S. and France are somewhat similar. The Middle East, North Africa and former colonies are to France what Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America are to the United States. These “feeder” nations have represented the lion’s share of immigration into both countries.
Both have lots of immigrants, but the United States has learned how to assimilate its newcomers better. This has turned the influx into a competitive advantage. Not so in France and other parts of Europe where anti-immigration politics and laws that prohibit everything from minarets to headscarves fan flames.
The salient fact is that the terrorists who went on a murderous spree this week were born in France. They were not immigrants. They did not remotely regard themselves as French or even European.
Frighteningly, France has become a breeding ground for thousands of such radicalized young Islamists. Security estimates are that 5,000 French citizens or residents have fought, are fighting or want to fight in Syria or Iraq alongside terrorist insurgents. That’s an army of violent individuals in and of itself, terrorist Trojan Horse.
(By comparison, estimates are that 200 such radicals exist in the U.S. and 100 in Canada, small compared with France’s figures. Notably, Canada’s estimated number of radicals is five times’ higher than the U.S. in terms of population).
The immigration experience differs greatly in both countries.
One out of every five American residents is Hispanic (first or second generation immigrants) and most have made their way into the middle class, professions, positions of power and wealth in the first and subsequent generations. They, and other immigrants, consider themselves “Americans” and fully embrace this supra-national identity.
Roughly one in five residents of France are first or second generation immigrants, mostly Muslims. There are many success stories, but they are disproportionately outliers in terms of jobs, housing and socially. This has bred resentment, alienation and violence. They are not considered French or European. They are Arabs or Africans or “others”.
Identity labeling is more than just a matter of nuance and has contributed to, or been created by, policy differences in the two societies.
Economically, France is a highly taxed, unionized closed shop. Jobs are highly paid, benefits through the roof and job growth stagnant. There are no right-to work laws such as exist in the U.S. (or for young people in Germany) that offer opportunities to immigrants or outsiders.
These starter jobs allow newcomers and young people to get a toehold then foothold, in the economy of their adopted country.
Legally, the divide is greater.
In 2004, France banned religious attire such as headscarves worn by Muslim girls from public schools. Then in 2010, the country prohibited any religious attire, such as the burka or veil, in public spaces that concealed faces. The first ban was supported as being an extension of France’s “secularism” (separation of church and state) and the latter as a “security” matter.
In the United States that same year, in 2004, the U.S. Federal Justice Department intervened on behalf of a Muslim schoolgirl, Nashala Hearn, when she was told to remove her headscarf because it contravened her Oklahoma school district’s “no hats” policy. She defied the request, was suspended twice and her parents sued with the help of civil rights activists.
The Justice Department’s argument was based on the “guarantee of equal protection and religious freedom” section of the U.S. Constitution. The court ordered that she and any other child, whose religious practices conflict with a school dress code, must be accommodated.
American courts have also ruled against wardrobe bans in the workplace unless safety issues are involved.
Herein lies the difference. American laws defend diversity while French laws do not. French defenders would say that the school attire ban includes Christian crosses or Jewish yarmulkes. But the ultra religious have the option of sending their children to private schools while France’s Muslims do not. Their children must attend public schools for economic reasons.
That’s why it’s little wonder that Muslims feel targeted. Frankly, the optics are dreadful and justification of the ban is questionable in my opinion.
Clearly, France must undertake some soul-searching, along with other European nations, about assimilation practices. The United States has done this during its history and become more sensitive as a result.
France must also, like Germany or the United States, do whatever is required to eradicate youth and immigrant unemployment by lowering entry-level wages.
First published in The National Post