The French Riots

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Pundits from
the media, government and academic worlds have blamed the recent
French unrest mainly on racial and ethnic tensions. As someone who
lived in France during the early ’80′s and has returned several
times since, I can attest that the native white French population's
relationship with Middle Eastern and North African immigrants (and
their children) has not been easy.

However, blaming
the riots that began in Clichy-sous-Bois solely on a failure to
integrate cultures misses a very important point: The heavy hand
of government was also a major cause of the disturbances — much
as it has been in similar outbursts in other nations, including
the United States.

Indeed, the
money successive Elysee Palace residents appropriated to appease
the alienated may have been like gasoline: It works as a solvent,
but it also needs nothing more than one timely strike from a match
to damage or destroy whatever it touches.

Stephane Berthomet
and Guillaume Bigot make such an argument in their forceful book
Le Jour Ou France Tremblera (The Day France Will Shake).
Well-meaning social engineers/bureaucrats wanted to ameliorate a
generation or so of increasing poverty and lawlessness in the banlieues.
So what did they do? They threw money — lots of it — at the exurban
ghettos.

In a striking
parallel with America's War on Poverty, funds the French government
provided went mainly to social organizations in the concrete rings
of poverty that surround many French cities. The result, according
to Berthomet and Bigot, is that the chief beneficiaries of legislative
largesse have been the outlaws themselves.

How is that?
Well, in a reflection of their American counterparts, French organizations
receiving the money were, as often as not, little more than financial
conduits for what Jack Newfield used to call the "Poverty Pimps."
They were ostensibly dedicated to improving the lot of the lives
of neighborhood residents or members of their racial, ethnic or
religious group. However, too many of them equated their power and
importance with their abilities to raise more funds.

As Newfield
might've said, Poverty Pimps in France, like their counterparts
in the US and other countries, figured out how to work the system
but never got around to making the system work. They very quickly
learned that implementing programs to help the jobless get work
doesn't bring in more funds. But television cameras do. And what's
the quickest way to bring the evening news crews to Bed-Stuy or
Bobigny? Agitate. Get people riled up and put cops and government
officials on edge.

Berthomet and
Bigot described — practically en toutes lettres — the aforementioned
scene, and inevitable conclusion. When City Hall feels pressure,
if it doesn't have money to pay off the agitators, it turns to state
and national governments. Wanting at least the appearance of peace,
the governments capitulate to such extortion.

What results
from this cycle? Certainly not jobs, which are what the banlieues
or inner-city ghettoes invariably need. And certainly not safety
in the neighborhoods, for such a situation invariably solidifies
the stranglehold of Poverty Pimps and their lieutenants (who are,
often as not, connected to gangs, drug-distribution rings and other
forms of organized criminality) in blighted communities. The latter,
of course, is a disincentive to any would-be entrepreneur who may
be thinking of setting up shop in the neighborhood.

So are the
higher taxes that inevitably result from government spending. Someone
who's thinking of starting his or her own business might be put
off by the prospect of having a large part of the income confiscated;
someone else with a novel yet highly marketable idea may look for
a more business-friendly (and safer) environment. In the US, major
companies have largely abandoned the inner-cities; their Gallic
counterparts are doing the same to the banlieues. Furthermore,
skilled and highly-educated young French people — particularly those
in technology and finance — are forsaking their native country for
places that are more conducive to their ambitions, and where taxes
are lower.

Left behind
are the chronically unemployed and the never employed — both of
whom very quickly become, in effect, unemployable whether or not
would-be employers discriminate against them. The Poverty Pimps
tighten their hold on the neighborhood, particularly on the alienated
youth. Governments respond — as Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin
did last week — by offering more subsidies.

As
everyone knows, handouts merely palliate symptoms; they don't work
on the root-causes of the malaise. Only opportunities can do that,
and the governments of the US, France — and any other country —
should step aside and allow business people to create them.

November
28, 2005

Justine
Nicholas [send her mail]
teaches English at the City University of New York.

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