Condescending superiority is a common British attitude towards the French, whose Gallic bureaucracy, artistic pretensions, and recent military record all serve as targets of ridicule. Now the recent wave of rioting across France, largely perpetrated by Muslim youths, has offered new scope to this smugness. Since the conflict began, the British media have been full of sneers about racial problems in French society, which supposedly has been far less successful than Britain in integrating migrant communities.
But this complacency could hardly be less justified. As an Irish-born writer who lives in both France and the United Kingdom, I believe that the British approach to race relations has been disastrous, fostering disunity, tension, and ethnic strife on a much greater scale than anything that has occurred in France. While cars have been torched in large numbers in French cities, Britain has experienced murderous terrorist outrages committed by Muslim men who were born and bred in England. Thankfully, there was only one fatality in the French disturbances. In the London bombings in July, 52 people were killed and over 700 injured.
Nor has Britain been free of serious race riots. Just before the trouble began in Paris, there were several nights of street fighting between Asian and African-Caribbean gangs in Birmingham, England's second largest city. Two people were killed. And this incident followed years of racial unrest in decaying industrial towns in the north of England, such as Burnley and Bradford, where there are large, radicalized Muslim populations, though the level of disorder is always downplayed by the political establishment and media, anxious not to undermine carefully manufactured images of multiethnic harmony.
In truth, Britain is now a deeply divided land, where suspicion, intolerance, and aggression cast their shadow over urban areas. Only the other day, the government revealed that, in the last twelve months, the number of prosecutions for racial hate crimes had risen by 30 percent. In a courageous recent speech, Trevor Phillips, a black broadcaster who now serves as the chairman of Britain's Commission for Racial Equality, warned that the country is "sleepwalking towards segregation," with society ever more fragmented by ethnicity and religion. Using remarkably frank language, Phillips added that parts of some cities will soon be "black holes into which no one goes without fear."
This sorry situation has been created by a deliberate act of public policy. For the last three decades, in response to waves of mass immigration, the civic institutions of Britain have eagerly implemented the ideology of multiculturalism. Instead of promoting a cohesive British identity, they have encouraged immigrant communities to cling to the customs, traditions, and language of their countries of origin. The emphasis is on upholding ethnic and cultural differences rather than achieving assimilation. This is in stark contrast to France, which has taken a color-blind approach to immigration, with newcomers expected to adapt to the culture of the host nation. The recently imposed ban on Muslim girls' wearing the hijab or headscarf in schools is a classic example of the French model.
Britain has moved in exactly the opposite direction. Soon after the French hijab ban was implemented, a British Muslim teenager brought a successful legal action to win the right to wear in school full Islamic dress from head to toe. She was represented in her court case by Cherie Blair, the barrister wife of the prime minister. And Mrs. Blair's action was typical of the spirit of the Labor-led British ruling class, which has elevated dogmatic multiculturalism into a principle of governance.
Racial segregation is woven into the fabric of British public services. Indeed, under the latest race relations legislation, all public authorities have a statutory duty to promote cultural diversity. So inner city local councils and hospitals in urban areas now print all their public documentation in ethnic minority languages, including Kosovan, Hindi, Greek, Swahili, and Turkish, while many provide extensive interpreting services. One doctor who works in east London told me of her outrage at being sent to take a course in Bengali so she could communicate more effectively with her patients.
Bilingualism is common in urban schools, given that almost 12 percent of children have a first language other than English. London is now the most linguistically diverse city in the world, with more than 300 languages spoken by pupils, ranging from Punjabi and Nigerian Yoruba to Polish and Tamil. In addition, the government now provides funds to Muslims to set up their own schools, in which there is a predominantly Islamic ethos, imams are involved in teaching, and Arabic is learned for the study of the Koran. At present there are just five such Muslim state schools, but the government has announced plans to take the number to 150, a move that smacks of appeasement towards Islamic separatism. The police have also been infected with this spirit. In recruitment in London, there is an open bias towards applicants who speak "a community language." And in the Midlands city of Nottingham, the July bombings prompted the chief constable to order his officers to wear green ribbons "to show their solidarity with the Muslim community."