Magazine article Newsweek

Europe Needs a New Identity; Theory and Practice Diverge Sharply. Europeans Claim to Have Given Up Their Old National Identities, but Have They Really?

Magazine article Newsweek

Europe Needs a New Identity; Theory and Practice Diverge Sharply. Europeans Claim to Have Given Up Their Old National Identities, but Have They Really?

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria (Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com.)

One week is a lifetime in the world of journalism these days. We've now been through two cycles of commentary on the French riots. The first saw the troubles as part of the broader clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. "Falluja-Sur-Seine?" asked the neoconservative Weekly Standard. The columnist Mark Steyn went further, drawing dark parallels to the Muslim conquest of Europe in the eighth century. But the riots had little to do with Islam. There were no green flags, no crescent signs, no slogans about Palestine, no rhetoric about Islam. The young men interviewed were irreligious and talked about respect, jobs and discrimination, not jihad, suicide and virgins in paradise. The pictures looked more like those of America's race riots in the 1960s than of Fallujah or Ramallah.

The next wave of analysis focused on economics. France has a staggeringly high unemployment rate in its ethnic ghettos, ranging from 15 to 30 percent. It has produced only a few hundred thousand private-sector jobs over the past 25 years, while the United States has generated almost 50 million. But if the chief cause of trouble is unemployment, there are millions of unemployed Frenchmen who are white and of European descent, and they are not rioting. France has a work problem. The country has the shortest number of hours worked per capita in the entire industrialized world.

The average Frenchman works 24 percent fewer hours than in 1970. The average American, by contrast, works 20 percent more. Last year's best seller "Bonjour Paresse" ("Hello Laziness") is a satirical description of the dreary work environment in French companies. ("Rule No. 5: Never accept a position of responsibility for any reason. You'll only have to work harder for what amounts to peanuts.") This cocktail of unemployment, underemployment and stagnation is not an Arab problem, it's a French problem.

France's current crisis is in reality a combination of several factors, including those listed above. But it is fundamentally a problem of national identity. And this is not a peculiarly French problem. Western Europe today has almost as many foreign-born citizens as does the United States. But its countries don't think of themselves as immigrant nations. The centers of society remain tightly knit, insular and largely homogenous.

Theory and practice diverge sharply. Europeans claim to have given up their old national identities, but have they really? France speaks of a republic of values, but scratch beneath the surface and it is a republic of cloistered communities. Other European countries speak of postreligious, postnational identities, but at heart they remain countries where identity is defined by family, community and territory. …

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