Voices

Riots in the welfare state

Islam is not the only danger here

Issue: "Trailer park blues," Nov. 26, 2005

A few years ago, my wife and I were in Paris, on the grounds of the Eiffel Tower.

An Arab teenager was selling cheap models of the tower, which he had fastened to the inside lining of his coat. A police officer came up to him and (according to my wife the French teacher) asked if he had a license to sell things. He didn't. The gendarme told him to get out of the park.

A few minutes later, the gendarme, seeing the young man had not left, ran up and tackled him. Then the gendarme started beating him with his baton. As the Arab youth cowered on the ground, the cop kept swinging his stick, bringing it down hard on the young man's body, over and over again.

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It was the most violent thing my wife and I, in our admittedly sheltered lives, had ever seen. But French passersby paid no attention, just walked on as if this were nothing unusual.

In the United States, this would have been a Rodney King moment. But the French have a different legal system. Under the Napoleonic Code, a person is guilty until proved innocent. And the crime this Arab youth had committed was economic entrepreneurship, trying to make a living by operating his own business.

France is a welfare state. The government controls the economy. Unions rule. Bureaucracies fight market forces so as to benefit factory workers, farmers, and civil servants. Wages are high, vacations are long, and benefits are generous.

That means French businesses cannot afford to hire people who need jobs. In the high-rise tenements on the outskirts of town where the immigrants live, the unemployment rate is around 40 percent.

So the liberal, enlightened government gives the unemployed and the poor generous welfare payments. But the immigrants have nothing to do. The government, if well-intentioned, dehumanizes them. They lose their self-respect and their hope of improving their lives. The young people turn to drugs and crime. The police stay out of the dangerous tenements, giving them over to lawlessness. But when one of the young immigrants strays out of his turf, the cops crack down hard.

Here in the United States, we buy our gas from a station owned by a Muslim immigrant. He works hard and has done well. After several years, he bought a second station. Not long ago, he bought a third.

Access to French higher education is open only to young people who have passed the correct examinations when they were only children. Those who have not passed get shuttled to vocational high schools rather than university prep institutions. Their social mobility is forever limited.

Here in the United States, practically anyone can get into a college. Young people from poverty-stricken backgrounds can get financial aid. Many ambitious young people from other countries who could not get into their university systems at home come to the United States to study. Overseas, universities tend to be hard to get into, but easy to pass through. Here, universities are easy to get into, but hard to get through. Everyone has a chance.

The tenements of the French welfare state are a breeding ground for radical Islam. France used to be a solidly Catholic country, but today more of its inhabitants go to mosque than go to Mass. The government is aggressively secularist. Its response to the religious aspirations of the immigrants is to ban Islamic headscarves from schools. This violates Muslim piety, causing many parents to stop sending their girls to school and increasing Arab-French hostility to their own government.

Here in the United States, all citizens have freedom of religious expression, even schoolchildren and even Muslims.

The combustible atmosphere in France exploded in riots, arson, and looting. Reminding Americans that the danger is not only Islam but statism.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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