Today's date:
Spring 2006

French Riots Show Need to Reform European Social Model

Anthony Giddens is the former director of the London School of Economics and the theorist behind British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “third way.” His most recent book is Runaway World: How Globalization Is Shaping Our Lives. He is now preparing a report for the European Union on the future of the “European social model.”

NPQ | The “European social model” of the welfare state is already facing the challenges of globalization and an aging society. The French riots revealed yet another challenge—the failed integration of immigrant populations.

What’s going on?

Anthony Giddens | France has been having plenty of problems already. It doesn’t have a sustainable welfare system. It hasn’t directed its attention sufficiently to integrating the kinds of people who went out into the streets. The backdrop of these riots is the persistent high unemployment rate, especially among young people. In the areas where there was rioting, that rate is 40 percent and above.

This is not true of all of Europe by any means. The United Kingdom has only a 3.4 percent unemployment rate. It has an efficient labor market.

So, the European social model has different trajectories in different states and thus different challenges.

NPQ | Tony Blair has been preaching to the rest of Europe about the need for reform—for example, more flexible labor markets that would aid the creation of new businesses and entry-level employment. Isn’t that exactly the kind of policy France needs to start creating work for its rioting immigrant youth?

Giddens | Yes. Tony Blair said rightly in June that a European social model that accepts 20 million unemployed needs some looking at. That is the project I’m engaged in as part of the British presidency of the European Union.

It is precisely those countries with unreformed labor markets— France, Germany and Italy—where the unemployment is concentrated. Every country in Europe that has done well in the last 10–15 years has done so because of more flexible labor markets—without having American “hire-and-fire” labor markets.

Overall, what would reform mean for these core European countries? More investment in research and technology. The Scandinavians have been leading in that. The reorganization of higher education, including charging appropriate fees for education. More open capital markets to create an attractive environment for investment. Germany, for example, relies more for investment on a network of firms than on global capital markets. And, as I mentioned, flexible labor markets, including actively helping workers adapt to technological change, as the Scandinavians have.

NPQ | Aren’t working immigrants who can pay for the welfare of the aging critical to the survival of the European social model?

Giddens | Countries like France, Spain and Italy have the lowest birthrates in human history. This is especially amazing in Italy, which is such a Catholic country. I take this contradiction to be the result of the women’s revolution. Women who want to work have no protection outside the traditional family, so they stop having children.

The major demographic difference between the EU and the United States is due entirely to the long wave of mass immigration there. That is what keeps American society younger and replenishing.

Immigration can make a positive difference in the pensions crisis in Europe, but it cannot solve it. To do that, it would take a vast influx of migrants. Clearly, another part of the answer is to look positively upon aging, as they are doing more and more in the US, by ensuring the older people have the right to work.

In Europe, only 33 percent of men over 58 work. In the US, that figure is 60 percent; in Japan, it is 66 percent. The whole idea of early retirement in Europe needs to be reviewed.

NPQ | Are the riots in France a result mainly of socioeconomic inequality, or do the Islamic culture and religion of the immigrant youth play a role?

Giddens | Mostly, I think it is socioeconomic. You can expect this kind of thing in a country where a high proportion of young people have never had a job, including some who are quite well educated.

Also, you have kids brought up in these separated areas in what has developed into a culture of poverty. The French high-rise ghettoes around Paris are even larger than American ghettoes. In reality, Muslim immigrants in France are just as “pillarized” as in the Netherlands—living segregated lives parallel to the wider society.

In these areas, where poverty and isolation have grown up over generations, the prospect of getting a job, no less a stable one, is quite remote.

All this is the backdrop out of which the role of Islam and cultural differences arise. They reinforce the separation from the wider society, even if they are not the driving force of the violence, as it was, for example, with the (filmmaker Theo) van Gogh murder in the Netherlands.

There is a paradox here also. Unlike in the past, these immigrant populations today live in a kind of hybrid space that mixes identities of where they are and where they came from. With the Internet and other media today, North Africans and others tend to remain connected to the global Islamic community, even as they are isolated from the French mainstream. Like other immigrants around the world today, they live in a kind of networked diaspora.