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NIALL FERGUSON

The fires of disintegration

November 07, 2005|NIALL FERGUSON | NIALL FERGUSON is a professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Website: www.niallferguson.org.

WHICH WOULD you rather have in your capital city: a terrorist attack in the center or a weeklong riot on the outskirts? After the experience of last July, most Londoners would probably be tempted to opt for the latter. The damage inflicted by the Tube and bus bombings far exceeds the cost of the recent mayhem in Paris' eastern suburbs.

On the other hand, the perpetrators of the 7/7 bombings could be counted on the fingers of one hand. By contrast, no one knows just how many young men took to the streets of Paris last week, but there were certainly hundreds. Britain and France face roughly the same problem at the moment. But there is good reason to think that France's is bigger.

Just what is the problem? Nicolas Sarkozy, the brazenly ambitious French interior minister, denounced the rioters as "scum" and "thugs," having earlier vowed to "clean up" the areas where the violence took place.

This was the cue for his foes on the left to blame the trouble on Sarkozy's heavy-handed approach to policing. Meanwhile, his foes on the right pointed the finger of blame at immigration. After all, the cars are burning in suburbs where immigrant communities predominate.

Sarkozy is, in fact, engaged in a clever piece of political triangulation. Having already bid for immigrants' support with offers of affirmative action programs and votes for noncitizens who are long-term residents, he now needs to send a signal to the French right that he also knows how to be tough. The real question is whether this mix of carrots and sticks is a credible cure for a divided city.

The problem is not immigration per se but a failure of integration. France has the highest foreign-born population of any European country -- more than 10%. Yet this is a legacy of past immigration, not present.

The French have a low immigration rate and are notably unsympathetic to those who seek political asylum. These days, most newcomers are joining family members who have been in France for years, if not decades. The trouble is, they are moving to ghettoes with miserable economic prospects. The unemployment rate among foreign-born residents is more than twice the national average, which is already high enough at more than 9%. Immigrants are also heavily overrepresented in French jails.

Revealingly, the rioters who have so far been arrested are nearly all the sons and grandsons of immigrants. Their life stories are sorry chronicles of educational underachievement, unemployment and petty crime in benighted enclaves such as Clichy-sous-Bois and Neuilly-sur-Marne.

Immigration need not mean social exclusion. Most of the people who move from poor countries to rich countries do so with the best of intentions -- to work hard and make a better life for themselves and their children.

Compared with Europe, the United States has long excelled at integrating newcomers. Not so long ago I was at a school in southern Texas, not far from the Mexican border. The day began with the entire class singing a ditty that went like this: "I am proud to be an American, be an American, be an American / I am proud to be an American, living in the U.S.A. -- OK!" Deeply corny, no doubt. But these little kids sang -- albeit in distinct Latino accents -- with real gusto.

Longtime Americans take for granted the language and civics tests that would-be Americans have to take. But they're not easy. One question in the official "Guide to Naturalization" is: "Who said, 'Give me liberty or give me death?' " I had no idea it was Patrick Henry. My favorite sample question is:"Who helped the Pilgrims in America?" The answer to that one is: "The American Indians/Native Americans" -- a fine example of the American habit of accentuating the positive.

The problem in Europe is partly economic. In free-market America, immigrants get jobs; they are not much more likely to be unemployed than workers born in the U.S. But the second problem is that Europeans do not try hard enough to make immigrants integrate culturally. In Britain, an English-language test for would-be citizens was introduced only last year, and only last week did they begin testing for knowledge of "Life in the UK."

This would be progress if the test were any good. Alas, there are only two questions on British history, and they are: "Where have migrants come from in the past and why?" and "What sort of work have they done?"

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