Two explanations have been offered for the recent riots in the French “banlieues.” One puts the blame on “multiculturalism,” a policy that tolerates the cultural habits of Arab immigrants—habits that run counter to Western civilization and have become a Trojan horse of Islamic fanaticism. The other blames the “color-blind” model of French republicanism, which failed to notice that the children of immigrants were in need of targeted state assistance.

Anyone who has followed the vicissitudes of France’s welfare state realizes that neither of these arguments cuts to the core of the problem. France’s multiculturalism is mostly rhetorical. In practice, that country’s brand of republicanism has actually imposed a renunciation of immigrant culture, sometimes in implacable ways. And the welfare state cannot be the answer to a problem caused by—well, welfare!

Immigration creates tensions, but a system that is porous and open will diffuse them in a way that a stratified society imposed by a welfare state cannot. The absence of “positive discrimination” towards second-generation Arab immigrants cannot be the reason why upward mobility is non-existent in a country in which “positive discrimination” towards well-organized pressure groups has created a privilege-based system that reaps advantages on some at the expense of others. The worst losers in that type of system are precisely those who start from a disadvantage--such as North African immigrants in Seine-Saint-Denis and other suburbs.

One would think 6,000 charred cars, the destruction of countless shops and other types of property in 300 towns and the horror France has gone through would persuade the French to question their model. However, the response of the government and the reaction of the French elites indicate otherwise.

The French model has caused two fractures. One separates those who have a job from those who do not. Those who do not are mostly concentrated in the suburbs, where unemployment among Muslim youths approaches 40 percent (10 percent of the French population is of North African origin). The other fracture separates those who have jobs in the government from those who have them in private businesses. The privileges enjoyed by those who work for the government--one in five members of the workforce-- are so good that a poll by the IFOP agency recently indicated 75 percent of young people would prefer to work for the government.

“France has too much state and too little government,” said Jean-Francois Revel, the French writer, a few years ago, echoing Jefferson’s views of societies that are disorderly because they have too much state. A child of Cartesian rationalism, the French model is a labyrinth of regulations that make it a Herculean enterprise to start a business or to increase your staff if you already have one. As Swedish writer Johan Norberg recently pointed out, in the 1990s American companies expanded their workforce by 161 percent, whereas in France the figure was a mere 13 percent.

Since people react to incentives, the French aspire to government jobs. If you get into the civil service and become a “fonctionnaire,” you can retire after thirty-seven years on your last salary. If you retire early, you lose 20 percent of your salary, while a private employee loses 50 percent. If you are the child of a North African immigrant, you can’t get a private sector job because businesses don’t hire many new employees and you can’t get a government job—the jewel of the crown—because those are reserved for whites.

The vast network of social benefits in France reflects the ways in which various groups have organized themselves to exercise political influence. The children of African immigrants were left out of the political marketplace—until the “banlieues” were set alight. Although the resentment is not new (see the ten-year-old French film “La Haine”), it has only now come to the political table. In typical fashion, the French mercantilist system is responding by creating more welfare benefits in a country in which the state consumes half the nation’s GDP and has stifled economic growth. The government has announced that assistance to struggling young students will be increased five-fold and that 100,000 second-generation immigrants will get government jobs without going through the competitive process. These solutions are exactly the cause of the problem—the welfare state.

Half a century ago, French economist Jacques Rueff persuaded the authorities to undo many laws that shackled the French economy and depressed the social order. The government even created a “French Committee for the Suppression of the Obstacles to Economic Expansion” (a wonderfully bureaucratic title for undoing bureaucracy). Although reform only went halfway, the results were spectacular and France’s unemployment stood at a mere 1 percent for years. Like Germany’s Ludwig Erhard, Rueff was not quite a classical liberal but he understood the welfare state was a danger to European prosperity. France desperately needs to bring that man back to life.