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November 23, 2005

Theodore Dalrymple on unemployment and the riots in France: discrimination is not the cause; France's rigid labour market is to blame

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

High unemployment in the banlieues has created the climate that led to the recent riots in France. Discrimination is not, however, the cause of this high unemployment, argues Theodore Dalrymple. It is caused by France's rigid labour market. Theodore Dalrymple argues that the answer to France's problems is economic liberalisation, not new anti-discrimination initiatives.

Once the rioting in France had died down to its usual, quotidian proportions, with only 50 - 100 cars per night being burnt in the banlieues, President Chirac eloquently denounced discrimination, which he called a deadly poison. For myself, I was not entirely convinced of his sincerity, but the important question is not whether he was sincere, but whether he was right. And I do not think that he was.

I have little doubt that discrimination against people on grounds of race and religion exists in France, because I think it exists everywhere. It may even be worse there than elsewhere. And researchers have certainly found that young people in France with Moslem names are twice as likely to be unemployed as young people of the same level of educational accomplishment who have French names.

The disparity may not be entirely due to unfair discrimination, however. French educational certificates have undergone the same grade inflation as British ones: for example, the proportion of children who pass their bac nowadays is more than five times what it was in 1970. In other words, the bac is not the guarantee of ability and accomplishment that it once was, and employers must make their choices on other grounds than a debased certification.

In any case, I do not agree that discrimination on grounds of race or religion is an insuperable handicap in the advancement of an individual or a collectivity: provided, of course, that such discrimination is not enshrined in law and that the society in which it takes place is an open one with an open economy. In fact, discrimination is probably like anxiety in its effect on performance: a little is good for it, but too much of it is paralysing.

Why, then, did President Chirac decide to attack discrimination as the root of the problem? I suspect that it was to avoid having to consider the rigidities of the French economic system, while appearing deeply concerned for the difficulties of les jeunes.

The problem for M. Chirac and his government is that the rigidity of the French labour market is precisely the aspect of the French polity of which most French approve, and which they most want to conserve. For them, economic liberalism (such as easy hire, easy fire) has bad connotations, amongst other thing of being Anglo-Saxon, whereas socialism and protectionism have good connotations.

Actually, it isn't very difficult to explain the high unemployment rate among the young French, including those without Moslem names. In addition to an employee's salary, an employer pays 40 per cent of the salary to the state in social costs; moreover, once he has employed someone, it is very difficult for him to disembarrass himself of him, even should he turn out to be thoroughly useless or even harmful. The small entrepreneurs of the part of France in which I have a house understand perfectly well what Parisian intellectuals affect to find puzzling, namely the intractability of unemployment among French youth.

However, people in France with salaries enjoy protections and privileges that they are reluctant to lose: for who, after all, loses his privileges with equanimity? This is why they should be granted sparingly in the first place, for their revocation always causes difficulty. So it is in France, where the slightest attempt at reform in the direction of economic liberalism and flexibility results in demonstrations in areas more fashionable, and therefore politically more important, than Clichy-sous-Bois. Better a conflagration in the banlieues than a demonstration in the Boulevard St Germain.

No wonder, then, that President Chirac should have chosen discrimination rather than the rigid French labour market as his target. He has simultaneously proved that his heart is in the right place, while avoiding a confrontation with the vested interests in the continuation of the status quo.

Moreover, by choosing the wicked human heart rather than economic rigidity as his target, M. Chirac has found new work for the bureaucracy to do: to check that no discrimination is taking place. As we know, this will provide bureaucrats with all sorts of important tasks to perform (more of them, in fact, will have to be employed to perform them), such as measuring the racial composition of the entrants to the Louvre, and comparing it with the racial composition of the population as a whole, including that of the tourists visiting Paris. Vast vistas of work open up before the bureaucrats, for example in devising schemes to attract more Malians into the Musee d'Orsay.

It is always much more fun and more gratifying to our sense of self-importance to try to engineer other people's souls than to let them get on with their lives and find their own level. President Chirac's remarks could easily be the founding charter of yet another layer of French bureaucracy.

So important is the hold of the French state on Frenchmen's minds and imagination that even those who can see that French statist intervention has been a large contributor to the current discontents in the banlieues look to the state for a solution by means of further extension of its intervention. For example, I heard one French intellectual call for the government to introduce entrepreneurs into the banlieues, as if entrepreneurs were conjured up by fiat of the government.

Les jeunes need jobs, but not the kind of pretend-jobs that so many of them have been offered, with their alphabet soup of acronyms, of the kind that the state is so adept at creating. Les jeunes need to believe that they are genuinely useful to others, and in order to feel this they must be hired by someone who actually wants their labour, rather than because the state has decided that they need to be kept off the streets for a few hours each day.

Unhappily, dependence on the state in the banlieues has been so total for so long (and even the drug-dealers, the only entrepreneurs for miles around, know that ultimately they are dependents of the state) that some of les jeunes may be beyond redemption. France has an East Germany in its midst, a considerable proportion of whose population may be stupid enough to listen to the siren song of the latest false utopia to disturb the peace of the world, Islamic fundamentalism.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as a doctor.

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Here is another interesting possibility: French muslim youth is simply not committed to being French because the French aren't committed to absorbing immigrants of any stripe.

Posted by: 16words at November 23, 2005 09:30 PM

25 years ago, Dr Walter Williams, a free-market economist and a black-American from the Philadephpia ghetto, demonstrated that minimum wage laws (or indeed slow growth policies, anything that restricts opportunity) hits hardest on the young and on minorities. The rioters were minority youth. QED.

Posted by: s masty at November 24, 2005 07:46 AM

what about the millions Italians, Spaniards, Jews, Belgians, Poles, etc.. who the last 150 years emigrate to France?
What about the high unemployment which affects the non-muslim white french youth?

Posted by: RoGeMi at November 29, 2005 01:24 PM
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