Andreas Whittam Smith: What France needs is affirmative action

It is viewed with suspicion. But how else could Americans such as Colin Powell have risen?
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At last, time for reflection in France, where I am spending the weekend. The country is quiet again after 20 successive nights of turbulence in districts where immigrant families live. Some 9,000 vehicles were set alight, 30 schools burnt out, numerous business premises put to the torch and 126 policemen wounded.

Teenagers and young men, born in France, whose parents or grandparents came mainly from Algeria and Morocco and territories further south, all part of the old French Empire in Africa, wanted to make themselves heard. In this they have emphatically succeeded. They have been more effective than farmers defending their livelihoods by blocking motorways. They have even outdone the sailors operating the ferries to Corsica who recently hijacked their boats as a protest against privatisation. Imagine our alarm if disturbances had begun in some of the poorer London suburbs and then spread to, say, Bradford, Blackburn, Birmingham, Leicester, and lasted three weeks.

The first Government responses were atavistic. Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister of the Interior, called the rioters scum that should be blasted away in the same manner graffiti is cleaned off walls. Nobody had ever said anything like that to French protesters before. Then the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, revived a law dating back to 1955 to impose curfews. It had first been used when Algeria was struggling to gain its independence from France.

Yet the rioters made no demands. They didn't send deputations up to Paris. They had no leaders. They didn't finally desist because the Government decided to improve their lot - which it didn't - or because they had been beaten back - which they weren't. They just lost momentum and stopped. The disturbances were like forest fires in the summer. Nor, when the season is over, does it appear, looking back, that the fire services made much difference. In the same way, nothing the French Government said or did during the crisis has had any impact.

Even if one cannot say how the next conflagration will occur, one can examine the terrain carefully. The newspaper Le Monde carried out such an exercise near Paris. The town it chose, Rose-des-Vents, is really a series of tower blocks built in 1969 to accommodate workers for a new Citroën factory, many of whom had been brought in from Africa. Hardly had the enterprise got under way, however, than the first oil crisis hit the automobile industry and Citroën began to reduce its workforce. At the same time the creation of out- of-town supermarkets killed off the shops in the centre of town. Little by little the "whites", whose employment prospects were better than the immigrants', left Rose-des-Vents.

That was stage one, the disappearance of work, and with it, the departure of the non-immigrant community. With rising unemployment came stage two, increasing levels of drug abuse and delinquency. The remaining shopkeepers began to board up their premises at night. More people who could afford to leave Rose-des-Vents did so.

Then arrived stage three, in many ways the most dire: the decline of local schools. Pupils became unmanageable. No wonder. By now their families often lacked a wage earner, some were fracturing under the strain and all were living in very cramped apartments. School is where the children of these poor families worked off their frustration and gave vent to their despair. Stage four has been the arrival of strict versions of Islam. Where once Muslim women wore Western clothes, now they are veiled. Where once there was a single mosque, now there are five .

To reduce the risk that this tinder will spontaneously catch fire again there are, broadly speaking two ways. One is to bring in new work. The second is to practise what the Americans call affirmative action. Under the first heading there needs to arrive in each troubled area two institutions linked together, a business enterprise, operating in the services and technologies of the future rather than the past, capable of employing some hundreds of people, together with a training establishment. The link is this: to obtain a job in the new enterprise you must have first passed through the training establishment.

The French state could bring all this about by directing the nationalised industries, by providing strong tax incentives for private firms and by creating the new educational facilities.

Affirmative action as successfully practised in the United States, which compels public bodies to pay attention to the employment of minority groups without using quotas, is unfortunately viewed with suspicion. It is an article of faith of the French Republic that, as all citizens are equal, then none needs special attention. But how else could Americans such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have risen to be successive Secretaries of State without the early help to their careers that came from affirmative action?

M. Sarkozy, who is by no means all bad and who reflects more deeply than most politicians, sees the opportunity. He said last week that "we are going to create special schools so that young people from poor backgrounds can take exams to get into the public service with a good chance of success". That is affirmative action. M. Sarkozy calls it "discrimination positive à la francaise". That is also a way forward.