CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — The race riots that have rocked France for the past two weeks have been violent and harmful - but noticeably disorganized. Their lack of clear organization may make it harder to find a way to end them. But it also offers the hope that smart action by the French authorities can calm the situation and hasten the launching of a deep new national dialogue over what it means to be "French" today.
The scale and duration of these riots show that this dialogue is needed now more than ever before. If it fails to occur, attitudes among the mainly immigrant youth who have rioted might soon harden, and extremist might organizations start to exercise more sway within France's long-marginalized banlieues (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 strong discrimination. They feel excluded from the social and economic mainstream. Though they receive relatively generous welfare benefits, unemployment among members of long-established immigrant communities is often three or four times the already high national average. Even French citizens with degrees from prestigious universities have trouble finding jobs if they look "too dark-skinned" or have "Muslim-sounding" names - and especially if they are women who choose to wear Muslim-style head scarves. Indeed, the French government has resolutely upheld recent legislation that forbids schoolgirls from wearing Muslim head coverings.
The government has enforced this law on the grounds of its strong commitment to "secularism." To be truly French, this law seems to say, you have to act in a totally secular manner in public places. 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 has, for the past half-century, driven a large and sustained inflow of immigrants. Birthrates 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 rate for "replacement" of population is 2.1. The US rate is 2.0.) Carrie Douglass, an anthropologist at Virginia's Mary Baldwin College, has noted that for large numbers of European young people, the version of "the good life" that they seek is no longer one that includes having children. Economic planners recognize that "native" Europeans need working-age immigrants to support these countries' rapidly aging "native" populations.
The emergence of large communities of citizens of non-European heritage has posed a distinct challenge to many European countries, and they have responded in very different ways. When I grew up in England in the 1950s, immigrants from Pakistan and the Caribbean were already a recognizable and constructive part of the local culture and economy. In 1981, when my son attended a preschool in West London, he was the only boy in his class not sporting a top-knot of hair secured with a Sikh-style kerchief. (But his little Sikh-British classmates all spoke far better "West London English" than he did.)
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 nonnative citizens who originally entered the country as guest workers - but it ended up as an unwitting host to several key cells of Al Qaeda organizers. 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 between the "natives" and the newcomers is real. So far - though there have been many quite unwarranted episodes of antiimmigrant violence - thankfully few voices in Europe have called for "kicking the newcomers out." But so far, too, no country in Europe has done a satisfactory job of "welcoming the newcomers in."
In France, the challenge is particularly urgent. Even while the authorities plan how to restore order, they should also be planning the searching nationwide dialogue that needs to follow.
• Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.