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French lessons

Claude Moraes on the merits of multi-culturalism.
France has experienced the worst race riots of any European country in recent times, yet there is confusion over what lessons the Left in Europe should learn from it. The French Republican model of assimilation of ethnic minorities has clearly been failing for many years despite some progressive policies by the French left including Jospin’s measures to tackle youth ethnic unemployment. This failure has resulted in rioting in more that 300 cities and towns across France.

This may not be the moment to argue that the UK model of integration is perfect and that of France completely wrong in every aspect but it surely is a moment to set out the genuine merits of our multicultural approach and the lessons the Left in France and across the EU could learn from us.

Firstly, in exploring what models of integration actually work whether in France or the UK is not an academic pursuit. It matters chiefly for the ethnic minority communities who are suffering in old ways - high rates of relative unemployment, poor housing, bad policing – and new, more acute ways such as Islamophobia and the links made between Muslim communities and terrorism. Moreover, multiculturalism matters for the future cohesion of our cities and urban areas, and in building bridges between white and black working class communities who feel marginalised from society as a whole.

For this reason the Left needs to be clear about what has and has not worked. The French model of assimilation was born out of republican aims - it is treasured by the Left as well as the Centre-Right - that all are equal under the French State, and no extra measures are necessary to achieve race equality. Ethnic monitoring is regarded as un-French as are positive action measures for minorities. This approach has failed. The French social model, advanced in so many key areas covering work/life balance, welfare, pensions, and atypical work patterns sees an ‘opt-out’ on anti-discrimination policies towards ethnic minorities so that resulting relative rates of unemployment are higher amongst the seven million ethnic minority population than anywhere else in Western Europe. Public bodies, local authorities, trade unions, virtually all SMEs and some leading multinationals do not monitor their workforces, the building block for positive action policies we are used to in the UK.

It is here that there is a fundamental problem on the French Left. There is an automatic assumption that the alternative to the assimilationist approach is affirmative action - for example quotas. Yet in the UK ‘affirmative action’ is illegal - positive action on the other hand is pursued by the public and private sector alike and has seen a huge decrease in discriminatory practices such as ‘word of mouth recruitment’ and has seen the introduction of codes of practice within local authorities, the police and so on. There are entire sectors - skilled trades, the professions, the civil service, and politics where to be an ethnic minority in France is to be guaranteed some discrimination along the way and virtually no accessible legal remedy to achieve justice.

So does this imply that the UK has the perfect model of integration and social cohesion in this area? Of course not - but here is the difference. We have, on the Left, understood that a well resourced, well publicised comprehensive race relations law is essential - there is no equivalent to the Race Relations Act in France, the CRE or the countless Left-led local authority initiatives to back the law. It has seen a decline in relative rates of unemployment for ethnic groups and as a recent Rowntree Report showed, social mobility for some ethnic minority groups is now strong. We have gone through the pain barrier - Scarman and then Stephen Lawrence have produced policing which, although deficient in key areas such as better ethnic recruitment, operates to some code of community relations. The French police, notoriously, have not experienced any major reform in community policing in the post-war era.

Our problems of integration in the UK are of course very clear. Marginalised ethnic groups who are not socially mobile and still experiencing high rates of unemployment and social exclusion such as the Bangladeshi community in East London, Afro Caribbean boys and men, the Pakistani Community in Bradford, as well as deep rooted problems for new and established asylum seeker communities are still persistent. We have a huge job still to do in the UK tackling racism, poverty and social exclusion.

So what lessons can we give to our French colleagues on the Left? As Ken Livingstone recently pointed out, the multicultural approach in our capital, often pioneered by the Left in local government has improved access to the labour market for many ethnic minority groups. It has also produced better representation in key areas. As one of the seven black MEPs in the European Parliament I have seen the dearth of representation in major countries such as France where the French national assembly does not have a single ethnic minority member – only those representing French overseas territories. Last year France had its first national black news anchor. The Left in the UK must never underestimate how much the often criticised policies of multiculturalism have in fact produced some of the strongest models of integration anywhere in Europe.

The situation in France today with Nicholas Sarkozy clearly playing to those who voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 suggests a further malaise in race relations. The Left is currently in a weak position. Under the last French Socialist government there were the beginnings of targeted policies. The UMP has wiped out all of this process. It is a long-haul now for the Left in France but it is imperative that they set a new and clear direction to create social cohesion.

Claude Moraes is Labour MEP for London and President of the Anti-Racism Intergroup in the European Parliament.