Well, now we know: the riots that have devastated France are because the country is secular, has a welfare safety net and a regulated labour market. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian have told us so. Australia could do things, and indeed is doing them, much better, as is the US. They tell us that too.
In editorials of November 7 and 8 respectively, the two dailies quite rightly condemn France’s marginalisation of its Muslim minorities and the hypocrisy (and inefficiency) of French assimilationism. Unfortunately, the conclusions they draw concerning the causes of this sorry state of affairs are partial (in both senses of the word) and based on a rather fuzzy grasp of the facts, and the solutions they advocate to change it betray not only a singular lack of understanding of what is actually going on in France, but also an overt or implied thumbs up to Australian economic and social policy.
The SMH editorial of November 7, “Fringe dwellers challenge France”, mentions France’s ten per cent unemployment rate and states there is “strong resistance” in France to “the kind of labour market reforms which might kick the French economic engine back into life”. Not to be outdone, The Australian subtitles its editorial of the following day, “France in crisis”, with the stern advice, “It must develop an inclusive, enterprise economy”. According to The Australian, the jobless youth in France’s “troubled suburbs” need “unskilled entry-level jobs” to gain a foothold in the “productive economy”, but these jobs have, it appears, been “priced out of existence by an over-regulated, union-dominated labour market”. The US and Australia, in contrast, offer many opportunities to “newcomers” in their “growth economies”.
What The Australian neglected to mention was that 2004 figures released by the US Census Bureau on August 30, 2005, right in the middle of hurricane Katrina, put the number of Americans now officially living in poverty at 37 million, or 12.7 per cent of the population. This is up 1.1 million from 2003, and the fourth straight increase. It also neglected to mention that the Australian Senate’s 2004 inquiry into poverty concluded the number of Australians living in poverty ranged from 2 to 3.5 million, that is, ten to 17.5 per cent of the population, depending on which measure was used. That is, these two model “growth economies”, Australia and the US, have poverty rates that are higher than France’s official unemployment rate. And they are growing. Along with our “growth economies”.
Now, about that unemployment rate. France, as The Australian notes, rather disparagingly, has a comprehensive social safety net, which is highly regulated (including trade union participation in the governing bodies of various social welfare offices, which combine elected and appointed members). While far from perfect, and under considerable attack, particularly during the term of the current government, the regulation of the French welfare system does mean the unemployed appear in the statistics. Unlike Australia, where according to a 2003 report by Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), true unemployment or underemployment stands at roughly twice the official statistics. That is, 1.3 million people, or 12.9 per cent of the Australian population, with one and a half times as many women as men being affected.
The Australian also lauds the success of US and Australian multiculturalism. This is no doubt evidenced by the fact Australian Muslims are being vilified as never before, and our government pushed for anti-sedition legislation that belongs more happily in a dictatorship than a democracy. It is evidenced by the paucity of funding for English language education for migrants, the non-recognition of overseas qualifications and the disgraceful conditions in which public schools and hospitals are forced to function, particularly in poorer areas with largely non-Anglo populations. It is surely further evidenced by the fact many aslyum seekers (many of them Muslim) are languishing in detention camps on Australian soil, some of them for years, in breach of the Geneva Convention and Protocol on Refugees to which Australia is a signatory. If France is, as The Australian suggests, “paranoid” about the “infiltration” of foreign words and culture, Australia is paranoid about the “infiltration” of foreigners, full stop.
But France, the SMH and The Australian tell us, imposes assimilation on its ethnic minorities, through its intransigent secularism and non-assistance to religious organisations. What we are not told is that the majority of French Muslims support secularism (even if some have reservations about the 2004 law on religious insignia in schools) and between 40 and 45 per cent are non-practising. What we are not told is that secularism in France began through the battle of Protestants against persecution by Catholics. What we are not told is how the demarcation of groups according to religious and ethnic origins was used, in Vichy France, in an attempt to annihilate an entire population.
Secularism in France developed as the guarantor of religious freedom and of the neutrality of the public sphere, and as such is often called the cornerstone of the republic. Like the principles of liberty, equality and solidarity (women being excluded from “fraternity”) on which the republic is based, secularism in France is flawed and often hypocritical, with many concessions to the Catholic Church. This imperfect application, however, does not mean the principle is wrong. Australia is also a secular country. Which means, among other things, that Australian Muslims have religious freedom. If John Howard had had his way, the Christian God would be in our constitution. This would have denied all non-Christians, including Muslims, religious freedom, including the freedom not to be religious - a freedom that many Muslim-background women in France celebrate and defend.
The editors of the two papers are unfortunately somewhat confused about who “French Muslims” are, appearing to assume that they are all immigrants. The SMH mentions “poor ghettos of mainly African Muslim migrants”, while The Australian similarly refers to France’s “five million Muslim immigrants”, and picks up that peculiar phrase, used widely during the 1980s and 1990s in the French media: “second and third-generation immigrants”. If one is second or third generation one is not an immigrant.
The SMH also gives a conservative estimate of Muslims being over eight per cent of the population. Now, French census statistics show the total percentage of the French population born overseas as being less than that (7.6 per cent), and a little under half of those are Muslim. Which means that most French Muslims are not immigrants. It took them decades to impress this fact on much of the French political elite and media; it will obviously take a little longer to convince the Australian press. The latter have in fact performed, in tagging all French Muslims as “immigrants”, precisely the act of ghettoisation of which they are accusing the French state.
Something else the SMH and The Australian fail to mention is that these French Muslims are participating in local community initiatives during the riots to safeguard the population, including guarding schools and cultural centres - sleeping in them if necessary. Reports received on November 9 from friends in Le Havre indicate many concerted acts of solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslims in this industrial port which was one of the casualties of the long-lived economic downturn that began in the mid-1970s, and has its share of “troubled suburbs”. Fortunately, the SMH does mention, in its November 9 report of the death of Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec at the hands of rioters, that many French Muslims demonstrated alongside Catholic-background French on this occasion, wearing stickers, such as those worn by the community volunteers in Le Havre: “Together we say No to violence.”
It is undeniable that decades of social exclusion and racial discrimination have produced the tinderbox that has been so easy to ignite, with the devastating consequences for France that we have seen and read about in the news. Those of us who are from France or who have lived there for any length of time have been upset and angry, both at what is happening in France and what we are reading about it in the Australian press. We are familiar with France-bashing here. We lived through it during the Rainbow Warrior affair and particularly during Chirac’s nuclear tests.