“The French have got it right,” was the cry from some quarters after the riots in three of England’s northern towns four years ago.
There were similar calls to abandon the “British model” of managing “race relations” after the communal violence in a part of Birmingham last month. Now the French state’s policy of headscarf bans and assimilation from above has gone up in flames.
So there’s talk of looking to “the US model”. There, the use of the hyphen — so people can call themselves African-American, Italian-American, and so on — supposedly symbolises a society where integration trumps racial division.
Integrated America? After the lethal segregation revealed by the retreating floodwaters of New Orleans?
Events in France, Britain and the US demonstrate a fundamental truth — capitalism, based on a permanent gulf between rich and poor, constantly generates other divisions.
Governments can pay lip service to integration. They can do so in the name of an imagined national identity or of a tokenistic “multiculturalism”, where the only legitimate culture is one that accepts the rule of the powerful.
But they cannot embrace people united around their class interests in a movement that truly integrates the best from each. So capitalist elites constantly seek to divide and rule. In doing so, they create new forms of racial division and breathe life into the old.
A growing rebellion
The riots in France have also been cited as evidence that the country needs to adopt an “Anglo-Saxon” free market economic model. According to this neo-liberal recipe, public spending must be slashed and more “flexible” jobs introduced.
But the revolt in France is not just against racism, but also against social problems created by neo?liberalism. It follows the massive no vote when ordinary people rejected the pro-market EU constitution championed by the country’s elite.
Neo-liberalism means a race to the bottom across Europe. Germany’s “grand coalition” is committed to raising the retirement age and increasing VAT. The proposed Bolkestein Directive would allow Latvian workers to work in France or Britain on Latvian wages and health and safety conditions.
We need to build on the Europe-wide revolt against neo-liberalism and carry the spirit of rebellion from the French banlieues into every corner of British life.
“The police want it, so MPs must vote for it” was the refrain from Blair in the run up to his commons defeat last week. Senior police officers were wheeled out to lobby MPs to vote for 90-day detention without trial.
This is not the first time the police have pushed for such draconian measures. In Northern Ireland in 1971 the British government bowed to police demands for internment without trial. Nothing did more to boost IRA recruitment.
Blair’s manoeuvring also reeks of hypocrisy. The home office wrote to senior probation officers this week, warning them that they were not allowed to lobby MPs over planned privatisations to the service.