How can one ideology or policy meet the needs of such a fragmented society, especially when history has created such complicated geopolitical living arrangements? Enter “Le problème de l’immigration.” As I have previously noted, there seem to be a lot more immigrants in European cities than before, so it’s understandable why there is so much unrest as a result of the consequences of immigration and why it is one of the largest political issues addressed during the elections. I have spent some time in the banlieue de Paris, the suburbs filled with projects in which many of the immigrants live, and let me tell you, the conditions are far from desirable, and in fact they stink. Literally.
Especially among the older generations, I encountered some hostile attitudes towards immigrants in France and in Belgium. Many older people feel that their way of life is being threatened. People told me that the new immigrants (from North Africa, West Africa and the Middle East) don’t integrate and don’t want to work. This negative stereotype brings to mind the American equivalent of the so-called lazy Mexicans who refuse to learn English. It goes without saying that the majority of middle and upper class Europeans may never encounter the places where some of these immigrants work (cleaning toilets, washing dishes, picking berries, etc.) and that they are actually contributing enormously to the economy by providing cheap labor. Granted that there are rogues in every cultural group, bums and thugs and drug addicts of every ethnicity who don’t work and live off of social welfare, but I would imagine the majority of immigrants who come to Europe and North America alike come with the dream of creating a better life for themselves and their families, and with some hard work, that is exactly what they get. So how does the reputation of a few rogues qualify the image of the whole? I heard people here say that the immigrants come here and want to change the European way of life, that they want to impose their value systems by building their own churches or mosques, and live in communities where they feel comfortable speaking their own languages. Why is it so hard for people to remember history? Isn’t this exactly what Europeans did during the colonial era, voyaging to the New World, to Africa and the Far East, setting up colonies, building churches, sending missionaries to convert the "savages," teaching the indigenous people English, French and Spanish? And if the indigenous people didn’t want to play the European way and adopt this “new civilization,” well then they were simply eliminated!
The cultural rift felt more strongly here in Europe than in the U.S. (maybe as a result of less space or maybe because I live in the bubble that is San Francisco) worries me, and I fear that history could easily repeat itself if someone really smart doesn’t come in soon with some real solutions (hosing people down not one of them) to lessen the divide.