Naughty French word

I just found this article published in December 2009 in the economist. I think  that the author point of view could explain the difference between immigration in France Vs.  in the USA and why, despite the existence of ethnic enclaves in both countries, the consequences are totally different.

“ASSIMILATION can be a dirty word in France. I learned that the hard way. Once, while consulting to governments on immigration policy, I listed assimilation as a laudable objective and got an earful from a French delegate. To her, the word assimilate means banning head scarves and xenophobic diatribes on French nationalism. To me, it meant bilingual households and economic success. I diffused the situation by changing assimilate to integrate and realised I had no future in international diplomacy.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times laments the immigrant situation in France. The authors claim France is, in many ways, a model economy. The French model of heavy government intervention and generous welfare state has meant France did not suffer the same pain more laissez-faire countries did during this recession. Yet beneath the surface lies widespread racism and migrants consigned to state housing projects and poverty. Due to their lack of economic success many migrants remain segregated from French society and cling to their cultural identity.

The authors applaud the success of the French economic model and criticise the social situation, but do not explicitly connect the two. I find the oft-repeated sentiment that the “French model” has been vindicated following the financial crisis baffling. Yes, unemployment is up only a couple of percentage points from its pre-crisis level, but it was still 10.1% in October. The structural rate of unemployment (unemployment in better times) in France exceeds 8% and in 2007 was about 18% for 15- to 24-year-olds. The French may feel relatively less pain during recessions, but that’s only because they don’t have it so great normally. The rigid labour market results in high rates of unemployment. This leaves young immigrants idle and dependent on state assistance. Their dependence on welfare and isolation can probably explain much of the resentment and racism among natives. From the NYT op-ed:

This is even more true at the present juncture: the minister of Immigration and National Identity has just invited the population to participate in a grand unifying debate on what it means to be French. At the same time, a new governmental report shows that the rate of unemployment in state projects is still double the national average, and the percentage of unemployed men between 15 and 24 years old in those projects is at an all-time high—42 percent, up from 37 percent in 2005.

Rather than claiming that older French people keeping their jobs during a recession is a great success, French economic policy should strive for a more flexible job market. Namely, the government should make it easier to fire someone, end the 35-hour work week, and provide less cushy state benefits. That may result in more instability, but it will also lead to a more dynamic economy. That will mean more job creation and opportunity for the young.

Our Lexington correspondent paints a very different picture of America in his recent immigration story.

Because immigrants have to work, America does not have ghettos full of permanently jobless and alienated young immigrants, as in France, for example. This is perhaps why, although America has a high murder rate—three times that of Britain—its immigrants rarely riot. They are too busy earning a living. America has not in recent years seen anything like the immigrant riots that torched the Paris suburbs in 2005. The closest parallel, the Los Angeles riots of 1992, sprang from the unique grievances of the one large ethnic group whose ancestors did not voluntarily migrate to America: African-Americans.

The migrants he describes work hard and thrive. But that is probably, in part, because it is easier for migrants to find work in America. Though to be fair, a flexible labour market does not overcome all social ills. Young black men in America do have much higher rates of unemployment than their white counterparts.

American migrants also tend to cluster in ethnic enclaves, but rather than hinder integration, it seems to enhance it. Lexington again:

The doomsayers about immigration have always been wrong before. It is a fair bet that they are wrong now. America has lost none of its capacity to absorb newcomers. A recent survey by Public Agenda, a polling group, asked immigrants in America how long it took them to feel comfortable and “part of the community”. Some 77% said it took less than five years. Only 5% said they had never felt that they fitted in. In contrast 58% of people of Turkish descent in Germany say that they feel unwelcome, and 78% do not feel that Angela Merkel is their chancellor.

Lexington points out immigration and assimilation are also sensitive issues in America. America is a country built by migrants. Yet natives have traditionally complained that the new migrants were not integrating and that the migrants’ values undermine American tradition. Yet, historically migrants have assimilated and contributed to America’s economic success. A recent paper by Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis, found unskilled migrants have increased productivity and the wages of natives since 1960. That’s because more unskilled migrants meant natives worked at jobs that made better use of their education.

The benefits of skilled migration are even more apparent. Vivek Wadhwa found more than half of Silicon Valley start-ups had at least one migrant founder. Jennifer Hunt found certain types of migrants (students and labour migrants on H1-B visas) are more likely to file patents and commercialise their discoveries than natives.

In that sense it is a wonder that America has become more closed to migration by continuing to limit the number of skilled labour visas (H1-Bs). In contrast, many countries in Europe have become more open to skilled migrants. Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada and Britain all now have point systems which allow skilled-labour migration, even without an employer or family sponsor.

So much of American exceptionalism has come from its ability to attract and integrate the world’s most talented migrants. Its dynamic labour market has been integral to its success. It has allowed migrant to thrive and even become a source of job growth for natives.

Dec 29th 2009, 17:18 by The Economist”

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