TCS Daily

Law and Order Conservatism Now; Economic Conservatism Later?

By Melana Zyla Vickers - November 10, 2005 12:00 AM

PARIS -- The French government knows exactly how many cars were burned by rioting Muslim youths in the blighted banlieues of its major cities Tuesday night: 617. But it has no idea how many Muslims live in the country.


The French government deployed precisely 1,000 additional police and national gendarmes to the riot zones Tuesday, for a total of 11,500. But until last week the government had spent a decade under-serving those same sensitive urban zones by one-third of the necessary cops, according to local politicians.


The French government began in 2004 to spend vast sums on renovating public housing in the banlieues, including $300 million in violence-wracked Clichy-sous-Bois, with its population of merely 28,000. But has done nothing to get the 20-30% of young men in those suburban slums out of perennial unemployment and under-education.


It seems that the French are dousing flames everywhere but where they matter most: In the Republics centrally planned heart. The riots that are shaking France represent a social crisis. But even more specifically, they represent a Socialist crisis. Along with the burning cars, Frances temples of central planning are going up in smoke. These including free public housing, state-controlled education, unionized police and teachers, a chokehold of labor laws, high taxes, and the self-conscious, forced secularism and egalitarianism that prevents the French government from asking its Maghreb-origin population even the simplest questions about its nature. That official posture may seem politically correct. But in fact, it is just plain aloof


Whats worse, theres little sign these riots will change French politics in any fundamental way. Already, theres the hard-line camp of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, for whom the answer is martial law of the style first introduced in 1955, when France worried that the Algerian struggle for independence would spill over into Frances Algerian migr population. On the other side, theres the politically correct camp of softie politicians who blame poverty, racism and repressive, pyromaniacal fireman Sarkozy himself.


Theres no question that in the near term, Frances suburbs need Sarkozys curfews and a heavy police presence. The trouble is that when the riots subside, as they will, Sarkozy and his ilk are unlikely to add economic conservatism -- free market conservatism -- to their law-and-order conservatism. Frances political class is far too vested in the web of centrally planned economics to allow that.


Yet just imagine what could happen if the French gave its citizenry a taste of economic freedom: Lowering tax rates and deregulating most sectors of the economy would allow business to flourish, creating jobs. Stripping unions of their power would allow employers to fire old incompetents and to hire young men and women, reversing decades of double-digit youth unemployment that strikes worst of all among minorities. Reforming union-strangled education would allow for new, motivated teachers to move to the underserved suburbs, filling a shortfall of educators that by some measures is up to 50%.


The what-ifs would grow even bigger from there: Grown men in their 20s would have no excuse for their unemployment, theyd have jobs to find and would no longer waste their days in the living rooms of their mommies, and their nights in the burning streets. Longer term, they might even have hope enough to leave those ugly, cement prisons of public housing, which in time could be razed altogether and not rebuilt as they are being rebuilt now.


To be sure, theres an ethnic dimension to all this as well: The rioters are rather monolithically North Africans whose parents hail from Frances former colonies, Maghrebins as the French would say. By unofficial calculations, theyre not particularly religious nor even Arab-speaking, so it would be wrong to see their rioting as a fundamentalist-Islam thing. What they are, though, is distinct from French whites, as were their immigrant parents before them. Yet the French government doesnt allow itself to take a clear picture of their identity. It doesnt ask about religious affiliation or ethnicity on censuses, and so it doesnt know whether France has 5 million Muslims, or 1.5 million. Local snapshots are the only measure of how heavily unemployed the Maghrebins are as a group. Same goes for the high rates at which they reportedly drop out of the public education system. Who can be surprised, then, that the French government doesnt know how to design policy to suit these citizens needs, aspirations, and shortcomings?


So it plods along, offering the same failed recipes it offered 30 years ago: Social welfare thats long on promises and short on delivery. Suburban public housing that keeps the minorities out of the Champs Elysees. An education system that takes away Muslims veils, but doesnt give them diplomas. And an economic order that makes sure the elites grow old in comfort, while the young are left to twiddle their thumbs and get into trouble -- and, in the worst-case scenario, fall prey to radical imams.


Theres no doubt France will restore law and order. The question is whether France will ever let freedom ring.


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