Events in France underline just how long and painful Europe’s quest for a working multiethnic model of society is going to be. After the successful resolution of the French veil argument last year followed by the July bombs in London—the latter seen as, in part, a product of Britain’s over-relaxed approach to integration—the republican model appeared to be in the ascendancy. Now, no doubt, the debate will swing back in favour of laissez-faire multiculturalism (with Blunkettesque bells and whistles attached).
The truth, of course, is that no country has the answer. In any case, each country’s approach must fit its own history and institutions. That said, there are a couple of lessons from Britain that France could note. The first is that if you do not formally recognise the existence of ethnic minorities, it will be read as a snub rather than a republican embrace, unless compensating “informal” recognition is found in civil society: this might include minority role models in politics, the media, business and so on. At a glance, Britain seems to have done better than France on this count, thanks, originally, to some good old-fashioned “top-down” political correctness enforced by institutions like the BBC. Second, integration into Britain is made easier by a relatively deregulated job market—there are more low-skill service sector jobs and it is easier to set up a small business here than in France or Germany, with their greater protection for “insiders.”
Are Europe’s problems with immigration getting worse? Probably not, at least if you strip out local difficulties with Islamic militants in Spain, Britain and the Netherlands, and France’s awful suburbs. The average European is no more xenophobic than 30 years ago; almost certainly less so. But recent troubles show how hard it is to make the formal offer of equal citizenship to immigrants and their immediate descendants a living reality—especially, as in France and Britain, when a recent history of colonialism can cloud the relationship. Rising numbers mean greater confidence but also disappointed expectations. US-style affirmative action is not the answer if we are to avoid a white backlash. But US-style suburbanisation may be. Immigrants integrate more rapidly if they spread out and have more of a stake in society if they own their homes. France has the wrong kind of suburbs.