Friday, August 27, 2004

Integration in France

Today's Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article (sub. reqd.) about a French-Moroccan comedian who goes by the name Jamel Debbouze. As interesting as Mr. Debbouze's career is, what is of greater interest to me is why France should have failed so abysmally at assimilating its immigrant population despite operating officially color-blind policies.

COLMAR, France -- The most popular comedian in France today is a short, 29-year-old man with a lame arm and a sharp tongue.

"I have two handicaps," says Jamel Debbouze: "I'm Arab, and I have my arm."

In France, a country at the forefront of the Western-Islamic divide with its large minority of Muslim citizens and immigrants, racial tensions are an urgent issue. French politicians are only just starting to question whether the nation's long-held official doctrine of ethnic colorblindness works, in the face of mounting evidence that France has failed to assimilate its Muslim populace, estimated to be Western Europe's largest. A spate of attacks on Jews -- largely attributed to Muslim extremists -- has stirred concern among the country's leaders.

But Mr. Debbouze is packing French people of all colors into halls and stadiums around the country with his edgy ethnic humor. His main shtick: jabbing away at France's failure to integrate its substantial population of Arabic and African immigrants and their descendants.

Mr. Debbouze, who is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and who lost the use of his right arm at age 14 when a train hit him as he was playing on railway tracks, is an unlikely star in France. Although an estimated 8% or so of the country's 60 million people are Muslims, the French-Arab and French-African communities boast no representatives in the national Parliament, no ambassadors and no heads of major companies.

Alone on stage recently in front of a sold-out hall of 7,000 spectators here in eastern France, Mr. Debbouze brought down the house when he impersonated an earnest, white high-school career counselor talking to French-Arab kids, who, like he did, grow up as second-class citizens in the grim housing projects around large cities such as Paris. "So you want to get into medicine?" he asked. "Well, the only way is to get an appendectomy."


Mr. Debbouze is hardly the first Arab comedian to use his ethnic origins to raise laughs and examine sensitive social issues. Arab and Muslim entertainers in the U.S. and Britain have used similar material, especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Mr. Debbouze's success is especially significant in France because open acknowledgment of racial differences has long been a taboo here.

In stark contrast to the U.S. and the rest of Europe, France doesn't officially recognize race, maintaining that national identity overrides ethnic or racial differences. That means there are no official data available on the racial makeup of the French population and no social programs targeting specific racial groups. Even the business community says it doesn't target consumers by race. Eve Magnant, public-relations director of advertising giant Publicis Groupe SA, says there is no marketing research based on ethnicity in France. "We are less advanced in this than in the U.S.," she says.
The French failure to assimilate non-white immigrants is especially disturbing for someone of libertarian persuasion like myself, posing as it does the question of whether it is indeed realistic to expect a laissez-faire approach to do the trick. Before jumping to such a conclusion, however, I do think that there is one major issue that also needs to be taken into consideration, and it has to do with state interventionism rather than a lack of it: the issue I have in mind, of course, is the rigidity of the French labor market.

As common as it is to remark upon the disproportionate impact France's high unemployment has on its Muslim immigrants, it is often forgotten that the reason these immigrants came to France to begin with was to fill job openings that were going vacant; had the rosy economic performance of the "trente glorieuses" era continued to have been the case, there would have been far less unemployment than there is today, and even if non-white immigrants had continued to be "last hired and first fired", as is often the case in the West, they'd still have been in a much stronger position to make the climb into the mainstream way of life, as I'm sure the greater number would have preferred to, had they been given a chance. Nothing lasts forever, and there was nothing any French government could have done to prevent growth from slowing once the oil shocks of the 1970s hit, but the ever-escalating mandates imposed on employers by the government certainly didn't help matters even when the global economy returned to a pattern of growth in the '80s and '90s. One symptom of the aversion to hiring that ails France's economy is the much-vaunted high productivity of the French worker, higher even than that of American workers: a rarely mentioned fact is that said productivity comes about largely through greater capital investment by French employers, which is a sign that companies feel hiring robots to be cheaper than human labor, rather than a hitherto unknown indicator of the French love of technology.

The way in which a nation's highly-rigid labor markets can end up marginalizing immigrants who don't share the majority's ethnic and religious background is a typical example of the sorts of unexpected consequences that can arise as a result of supposedly enlightened policy-making. Would so many of those who supported the job-destroying policies that have helped keep France's Muslims in their banlieues have been quite so eager had they known what the end-result would have been? Then again, perhaps I'm being too optimistic in thinking they'd have minded, even had they known; after all, those left-wingers who pressed most fervently for ever more employer mandates were both white and of predominantly Christian stock, so it wouldn't have been their axes which would have been gored, nor those of any whom they could easily have identified with.