France and the
United States have many similar social problems, such as massive illegal
immigration, poverty and youth violence in urban areas, and declining levels of
educational achievement. Are French politicians able to offer some new ideas to
solve the social problems that we share?
The number one
political issue in the weeks before the first ballot on April 22 is the
interrelated problem of France�s large and alienated ethnic minority population
and the flood of illegal immigration. In the United States, the problem caused
by the flood of illegal immigrants is also a difficult issue. But, in France
the problem is much more acute. In the United States, illegal immigrants are
mostly Catholic and Hispanic in origin; and as such quite similar to millions
of American citizens who have the same religion and ethnic origin.
However, in France,
there is a very large ethnic minority population, and a sizable illegal
population, whose religion is Moslem and whose culture is North African Arab,
or Moslem from Black Africa. (Eight to ten percent of the French population is
now Moslem.) This population differs greatly from that of French people from
whatever European origin, most of whom are very secular and nonreligious. Many
French people, like Americans, have diverse European immigrant roots. Nicholas
Sarkozy, the center-right presidential candidate, for example, had a father who
emigrated from Hungary. So, the problem in France is one of national identity,
much more than it is in the United States.
for dealing with the problem of illegal immigration is to establish a national �department
of immigration and national identity� in the government. He promises to
crackdown on illegal immigration and send all illegal immigrants back to their
countries. He asserts that immigrants should be able to speak French and
respect the �secular� culture of France. (Surveys show that 55 to 65 percent of
French people agree with Sarkozy on this issue.) Needless to say, he is very
unpopular in ethnic minority communities, which are concentrated in the poor
suburbs of large cities. But, these communities tend to vote Socialist anyhow.
candidate, Segolene Royal, has made very few concrete proposals to deal with
illegal immigration. Instead, in an effort to show that leftists can also be
patriotic, Royal recommends that people fly the tricolor flag of France from
their windows and says that all French people should know the words of the
French national anthem, �The Marseillaise.� Politically, this is her attempt to
reinforce the idea that Sarkozy is a �racist,� who discriminates against the
ethnic minority population.
The social problems
of youth unemployment and youth violence in the poor suburbs are closely
connected with the problem of the ethnic minorities, who live in the public
housing projects in those suburbs. In the United States, a similar alienated
and poor ethnic minority is that of black youth in urban neighborhoods. But,
the problem is largely ignored by the mass media, because poor black young
people in drug gangs kill mainly other black young people. In contrast, in
France, poor teenagers express their anger, on occasion, by coming �downtown,�
beating up teenagers from prosperous neighborhoods, smashing store windows and
burning expensive cars. (Fortunately, in France, actually killing people is
Sarkozy gained a
reputation as a �tough cop,� when he was head of the national police during the
suburban youth riots in September of 2006. Sarkozy has pledged to clean up the
violent thugs and hoodlums. On the positive side, he also proposes spending
about 3 billion euros for the construction of new public housing for poor and
working-class people. In order to make more jobs available, he promises to
reform France�s rigid labor laws and make more flexible labor contracts between
employers and workers. (In France, it is almost impossible to fire salaried
workers from the first day they are hired.) He has also proposes giving tax
cuts to businesses, so they can hire more people.
Royal says that she
will be �firm� against violence of any kind. She pledges to raise the minimum
salary by one-third, from 1,000 euros per month to 1,500, and to add a lot of
government subsidized jobs. She also proposes to construct a lot more new
For his part,
Fran�ois Bayrou says that the problems of poor youth are basically problems
that result from inadequate education (witnessed by the high drop-out rate).
So, he promises to improve schools in the poor neighborhoods by spending more
money on those schools. He also proposes a national obligation for youth of six
months public service, which will provide some job training for poor youth. He
promises job creation programs by way of lowering taxes, reducing government
spending, a balanced budget, eliminating the national deficit and giving more
help to small businesses. This song should sound familiar to American ears.
Bayrou has said that �the socialist model doesn�t work� and that he seeks the �third
way� of Clinton and Blair.
A major issue in the
French election concerns the 35-hour government mandated maximum work-week for
salaried workers. This regulation was introduced by the last Socialist
government and has caused a lot of controversy, especially among small business
and shop owners. Sarkozy promises to �reexamine� the 35-hour maximum work-week.
He probably wants to return to the previous 40-hour work-week, if he can manage
to do so. In contrast, the Socialist candidate, Royal, will probably keep the
35-hour maximum to maintain the support of salaried workers.
The latest opinion
polls, as of Friday, April 6, have different findings depending upon the survey
techniques used. This indicates a volatile electorate, with a high percentage
of people still undecided. However, in all of them, Sarkozy is in the lead,
with Royal second, and Bayrou a close third. In a possible runoff between, Sakozy
and Royal, the polls show a close win for �Sarko.�
Regardless of who
will become the next president of the Fifth Republic, France is likely to
follow a socio-economic path quite different from that of the United States. It
will continue to offer economic support for quality-of-life concerns and aid to
poor people, greater than any other industrial nation. Therefore, solutions to
social problems in France require quite different strategies than in the United
Jeffrey Victor is a sociologist
who lives in France during the winter months, with his wife who is a French citizen. Responses are welcome at email@example.com.