"Multiculturalism" and affirmative action contribute to cultural fragmentation, or so conservative polemic contends. They also contribute to social stability, or so an American following the rioting in France might conclude.
The French "model" of integration is the American conservative ideal. The Republic does not recognize groups; the census includes no box to indicate race or ethnicity. France recognizes individuals only. France is officially "color blind." All French citizens have the same rights. Only they don't.
"France" may not discriminate. French society does. Racially based discrimination in employment is the French way. Jamal Baccori, thirty-four, of Algerian extraction, a resident of Clichy-sous-Bois, the Paris suburb where the rioting started, discovered that when he applied for a gardener's job with the local government.
You need a baccalaureate, an official told him.
Do you have degrees? he asked the two (white) Frenchmen working in the garden outside.
No, they replied. They had never heard of that requirement.
"They close all the doors on people," Mr. Baccori told the Financial Times, "so of course some are going to turn to alcohol, drugs or crime." Especially if they live as he does in a high-rise "estate," the segregated housing for the minority poor.
"France is not a country like others," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin declared in his speech last week before the French Chamber of Deputies. "It will never accept that citizens live separately with different opportunities and unequal futures." Official France denies reality to preserve the fiction of "equality." It has no "positive discrimination" policies—that is, affirmative action—because it has no negative discrimination based on race, religion, or ethnicity to overcome. Tell that to Jamal Baccori and the other young Muslim men among whom unemployment approaches 40 percent. The sluggish French economy shares the blame for that with French racism.
To preserve the fiction of "fraternity" the French ignore difference. Notoriously, Muslim girls can't wear head scarves to public schools. You can bet French history textbooks concede nothing to multiculturalism. Sounds like your kind of place, Pat Buchanan—too bad it's France.
The French would deprecate the minority "coddling" displayed in the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, about ten-year-olds preparing for a dance competition among New York City schools. While the students rumba and fox trot the camera finds two boys sitting alone against the gym wall, the CD or tape player broadcasting the dance music between them. Our religion forbids dancing, one says. They are in charge of the music. They seem happy to participate in that way. The other kids accept them. The teachers, one of whom motivates a dancer by appealing to his pride of "country"—the Dominican Republic!—affirm them. The school accommodates them. The maxim of the American model of assimilation circa 2005 is "Vive la différence!" Maybe the French should try it.
The French Interior Minister has urged a rethinking of the French model. He calls for a debate on affirmative action and on the 1905 law separating church and state invoked to ban Muslim headscarves and Jewish skull caps from the schools. Ironically that minister is Nicolas Sarkozy, who inflamed the rioting by denouncing the rioters as "scum." He has no credibility with the minority community he wants to help. The rioting in any case looks to have fed an anti-immigrant backlash, not to have provoked second thoughts about the French model, much less a debate over adopting ours.
Bill Clinton, who insisted that the American experiment in prizing diversity over homogeneity offered a lesson for a world riven by ethnic, racial, and religious conflict, thinks we may be in the midst of our "third great revolution," one testing the proposition whether "we can live without having a dominant European culture."
The revolution of multiculturalism has swept through the schools, suggesting that it is here to stay. One survey found that from 31 to 73 percent of the selections in a sample of elementary school readers used in American history classes dealt with race or ethnicity. More high school students know who Harriet Tubman was than George Washington. In a poll conducted in the early nineties, while 90 percent of Ivy League students could identify Rosa Parks, only 25 percent knew who called for "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," and only 22 percent knew that unknown person who spoke those words in the Gettysburg Address. "At the turn of the century," Samuel Huntington reports in Who We Are: The Challenges to America's National Identity (2004), "none of fifty top American colleges and universities required a course in American history."
Such widely publicized excesses energize the nationalist counter-revolution against multiculturalism. Between 1980 and 2000 three cities and four states held twelve referenda on making English the "official language" and banning bilingual education. Eleven passed. The "anti" vote averaged 65 percent.
We are hardly immune to rioting among our alienated youth of color. But do anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, and cultural pluralism increase or lessen their alienation? Two weeks of rioting by France's alienated youth of color should show our cultural chauvinists where chauvinism can lead.