WASHINGTON—It took more than two weeks after rioting by young people in more than 300 French cities and towns for President Jacques Chirac to address his nation. He argued that a “deep malaise” was at the root of the violence tearing through low-income, heavily Muslim neighborhoods and that greater economic integration was needed to combat the unrest.
American critics have derided Mr. Chirac’s slow response to the crisis and pointed to what they see as the irony of the French reaction to the images of Hurricane Katrina when their own record on equality appeared to be going up in flames on nightly television. But those who think that the rioting that has swept France is solely a French problem, or that it can be easily diagnosed and quickly cured, are mistaken. What happened in France can happen elsewhere. Many other European nations are eyeing France and wondering if their countries will be next.
And American leaders looking abroad can hardly say with confidence, “That won’t happen here.” It already has. In 2001, Cincinnati witnessed riots following the shootings by police of more than a dozen black men over six years. In 1992, residents of Los Angeles burned property and rioted after the acquittal of four white police officers charged with the beating of an African American motorist. (But New York held together after highly publicized incidents in 1999 and 1997 involving white police officers and nonwhite immigrant men.)
Overcoming economic inequality among the poor of any community—immigrant, racial or ethnic minority, or native born—is the work of decades. Despite the policies, programs, and practices dedicated to reducing poverty in the U.S., the number of people going without is again on the rise. We still have not managed to bring equality to all corners of the United States.
One area in which the United States has had greater success than France is in incorporating immigrants into the fold. Immigrants are admitted to the United States as presumptive citizens. The children of immigrants are granted automatic citizenship because they are expected to become full members of American society.
Of course, formal citizenship does not guarantee social and economic equality. But we have learned through successive generations that the offspring of immigrants become our workers, business owners, educators and political leaders. Not incidentally they also become police officers and border patrol agents. They become, in essence, American.
Even before making immigrants into citizens, the United States does a better job of learning about the size and scope of the challenge. The Census Bureau has changed the way it classifies a person’s race with each successive census, reflecting the changing composition of the nation, largely through immigration. But that it asks about race in the first place is important. It also collects information about other markers of identity such as language spoken at home, birthplace and ancestry.
Some criticize the limited choices the Census Bureau offers. Others lament that the census allows people to promote their racial or ethnic identity at the expense of their American one. But the risk of collecting the data on these categories has been worth it if one considers how it has been used to allocate federal contracts, guide public spending on education and programs aimed at increasing economic mobility, including among racial minorities and immigrants.
Contrast this with France, where officials barely gather data on racial, ethnic and religious origins of French citizens. With little tracking of how these factors affect people’s economic welfare, France has chosen to act as if saying all citizens are French actually provides equality. The failure of French leaders to realize that race, religion and ethnicity do matter provided the dry underbrush for the fires that have raged in recent weeks.
France follows citizenship principles similar to America’s. But French political leaders have not yet recognized the value of providing opportunities for the advancement of the second and third generation descendants of immigrants. While they offer the ideal that all citizens are fully French, this ideal does not match reality. While poverty, segregation, and discrimination are no excuse for violence, the message of the youth on the French street is, if not lawful, at least clear on just how excluded they feel.
France should stop thinking about these youth as immigrants and start thinking about them as their future. The U.S. immigration system is far from perfect. But it might have some lessons to offer France on ways to integrate newcomers and their children. And we Americans might learn a few things about ourselves along the way.