Arc de Triomphe

     The other night, with a glass of red wine, I was looking at a night photo of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was taken by my dad a long, long time ago.
     Two lovers embrace in the foreground. Behind them is the monument awash in brilliant light standing against a pitch-black sky, a symbol of France, its strength, its history, its accumulation of art, its political tolerance and eternal appreciation of beauty.
     Looking at the photo after last week’s attacks, the powerful monument, with the names of Napoleon’s generals etched inside its great arch, suddenly seemed vulnerable. The light and shadow seemed to convey a culture under threat, a fading power, a way of life disappearing.
     The next day, I wrote a message to a college friend that said, “Shutting the door, closing the borders, will be seen as the only option.”
     I wrote that from California, a nation state that over its history has withstood and been made stronger by waves of migrants, a state whose success in integrating millions of people from other nations is reflected in surveys showing a much higher level of tolerance for the foreign-born compared with the rest of the United States.
     What makes the difference between a vulnerable France and a resurgent California.
     From the viewpoint of one who was born in France of a French mother and spent years in French schools, and who has also has spent decades reporting on California, there are stark differences between the regions when it comes to immigration.
     California has long struggled with a porous border, but the controls remain tight. Federal agents look into the window on the driver’s side of each car coming across the border, often putting their hands on the bottom of the window frame and leaning in to ask questions.
     In contrast, the 26 nations of Europe that share open borders have left a wide open door in Greece. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have been pouring through that door and into a group of nations with a total population of 400 million, larger than the United States.
     “I wonder how long Merkel can hold out,” I also wrote to my college friend.
     The German chancellor has been stoic, admirable in her defense of a mostly humanitarian, partly economic position welcoming the immigrants. But news reports show growing rebellion within her own party and my guess is she cannot hold out much longer.
     In contrast to Germany’s official welcome, it came as very little surprise that its neighbor, Denmark, moved quickly to control its borders and wanted no part of Merkel’s plan to distribute the migrants throughout Europe.
     Like the French, the Danes have had their own dealings with the outfall of cartoons that perhaps intentionally caused offense in the Muslim community, after hosting an earlier wave of refugees from Iraq and the Middle East. Denmark’s nativist party has since grown to become the government’s power broker.
     In contrast to the old civilizations of Europe, California is one of the newest states in a new nation. As part of its creation, it absorbed repeated waves of immigrants, many who survived grinding hardship. Those conditions continue today for illegals working in the shadow of the law.
     At the same time, many immigrants have succeeded. The universities of the state are fairly well mixed, and its economy serves as a powerful engine of uplift.
     Compared with the wealthy nations of Europe, California is stingy on its social welfare. There is an intense pressure in the immigrant population to work, go to school and get ahead. Perhaps as a result, the children of immgrants generally assimilate into the broader culture within one generation.
     Ethnic enclaves certainly exist in California, enveloping Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan communities — you can just about say, ‘Name the country,’ and California has a community from that nation. And accounts are common of women coming from Latin America to give birth in California and in a single stroke qualify for benefits and legal status.
     But primarily immigrants come to California for work not welfare. The principal driving force here is to get ahead, rather than dwell on religious and political hatreds from half way across the world.
     Europe is set up differently.
     A friend once described Europe as a “country club.” If you were a member of the club, life was good and the weak received plenty of help from the state. I have an enduring image of the apartment of a Danish guy who was in large part a petty criminal and drug addict. His well-maintained apartment was bigger and nicer than mine in California, all paid for by the Danish state. He had a big dog, a little yard, and no job.
     But in country club Europe, the ethnic communities have largely not been assimilated. On a trip to Paris two years ago, I saw the armies of black and brown workers transferring through the Chatelet-Les Halles station on the Paris underground, a tired stream of dark humanity headed towards poor suburbs where few escape.
     The forces of the world, its poverty, its grinding religious conflicts, are pressing in on Europe. And if it is to endure, I have come to the conclusion that it must follow California’s model and do a better job of both watching the door and giving people a chance to move ahead.

%d bloggers like this: