Europe needs its immigrants

Helena Cobban

The race riots that rocked France have been violent and harmful, but also disorganised and harder to end. But it also offers the hope that smart action by the authorities can calm the situation and hasten the launching of a new national dialogue. The scale and duration of these riots show that dialogue is needed now more than ever before. If it fails to occur, attitudes among the mainly immigrant youth might soon harden, and extremist organisations may start to exercise more sway within France’s long-marginalised suburbs.

The vast majority of rioters are young men of North African or West African origin. Many are reportedly not just citizens of France but also members of the second or third generation of their families to live in Europe. But despite having grown up immersed in French culture, many continue to experience discrimination. Though they receive relatively generous welfare benefits, unemployment amo-ng members of long-established immigrant communities is often three or four times the already high national average. The French government has upheld legislation that forbids schoolgirls from wearing Muslim head coverings on the gro-unds of its strong commitment to “secularism.” It is not a position that encourages diversity or dialogue.

Many other European countries now also face the challenge of redefining their relationships to communities of citizens of non-European origin. Across Europe, sheer demographics have, for the past half-century, driven a large and sustained inflow of immigrants. Birth rates among the continent’s “natives” have been falling for decades. In a number of European countries, the average number of births to each woman has fallen to 1.3. The emergence of large communities of citizens of non-European heritage has posed a challenge to many European countries, and they have responded in very different ways. At some levels, Britain seems to have done a better job than France of managing cultural diversity. But Britain has also seen the emergence of a generation of citizens of South Asian or Caribbean origin who have felt it hard to know where or how to “fit in.” Several British cities have seen race riots over recent years. In addition, some young British citizens, having gravitated to Al Qaeda, committed the deadly London transit bombings of July.

Germany has worked hard to build a good relationship with the long-established communities of Turkish-origin and other non-native citizens who originally entered the country as guest workers but ended up as an unwitting host to several key cells of Al Qaeda organisers. Culturally liberal Spain hosted the immigrant individuals who killed 191 people in the July 2004 train bombings in Madrid. And in the liberal Netherlands last year, a violent Islamist of Moroccan descent — born in West Amsterdam — killed filmmaker Theo van Gogh. These are not easy issues to address. In Europe, as throughout much of US history, members of native-born populations often fear the arrival and integration of newcomers; yet, in all these cases, the interdependence betw-een the “natives” and the newcomers is real. So far few voices in Europe have called for “kicking the newcomers out.” But so far, too, no country in Euro-pe has done a satisfactory job of “welcoming the newcomers in.”