Melting pot v. bouillabaisse

There’s so much irony in The Times of London’s coverage of the French riots.

America was supposed to be the melting pot — when I was raised, color-blindness was a would-be national virtue — but instead we’ve become a multicultural chunky chicken pot pie, where everyone except for ethnically indeterminate products of the cultural crockpot (like me) maintains some measure of ethnic identity.

France, meanwhile, was supposed to be protecting its culture, so it tried to be a melting pot by having immigrants assimilate.

Now The Times says France’s “colour-blind policy has fed Muslim radicalism.” The implication is that melting pots are bad but a culture bouillabaisse is good. File that under failed policies with separate-but-equal and racial quotas. And add in France’s policy of not allowing religious headgear, which many of us in America took to be a sign of intolerance (and French critics criticized us for that at the time). Even The Times ends up confused in this house of cultural mirrors:

Under the ethnically colour-blind “French model”, the immigrant workers who came in the 1950s and 1960s from the former colonies in North and black Africa were to be regarded as equal citizens. They and their descendants would take advantage of the education system and generous welfare state to assimilate with “white” France. To promote the idea of assimilation, neither the State nor any other body publishes statistics on ethnic or national origin.

In practice, France turned its back on the minorities, shunting them into suburban cités denying access to the so-called ascenseur social (social elevator) that was supposed to lift immigrants into the mainstream. Unemployment on the estates is up to three times the 10 per cent national average. Laws supposed to promote integration and oppose multiculturalism, such as the ban on Muslim headwear in schools, have often heightened resentment and the feeling of exclusion. This has in turn fed the rise of Muslim radicalism, which has now become the dominant creed of the young in the French ghettos.

France has always deemed its model superior to the Anglo-Saxon approach of diversity, which has enabled ethnic minorities to retain strong bonds in cultural and religious communities. France calls this “comunitarism” and says that it promotes ghettos, exclusion, poverty, race riots and religious extremism that can ultimately lead to actions such as the London bombings.

Three decades on from the big inflow of immigrants, everyone now agrees that the French model has not worked, although almost no one says that the American and British approach has produced better results.

And as I heard on Brian Lehrer’s show last week (I think), a caller said it’s not right to call the rioters “immigrants” since many are second- and third-generation. They are now French. But they are, indeed, unassimilated and unwelcome. Could it just be that the French are snobs? Well, yes, and that’s not as snobbish of me as it sounds. I’ve known Americans who’ve lived in France for decades who were seen as outsiders. That’s the way France has always been, no? But prejudice is prejudice and poverty is poverty, no matter. So perhaps we’re seeing a condensed and delayed version of America’s ethnic strife: minorities are mistreated and then there are ineffective or insincere efforts at assimilation and then the minorities revolt. Is France facing its ’60s? Is Paris burning? Will Europe? And why is America still being painted as the only bad guy in the Muslim worldview? Let’s also not forget France’s own problems with 19th-century globalism and Europe’s own problems with 20-th century ethnic tolerance. In none of this am I nya-nyaing France for its problems; they are too serious. And they, like our problems, are far from simple.