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Last year the French social affairs minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, launched a grand plan for social cohesion. It was designed to tackle unemployment, discrimination and housing problems. The French prime minister announced more of the same this week.

If initiatives alone could create equality and harmony, they would be as commonplace in France as vin de pays d’Oc. The French, rather like us, have had one regeneration programme after another for longer than some practitioners have memories. There was the ‘policy for the city’ of 1981; a national council for cities in 1988; a ‘high council for integration’ in 1989.

It’s worth bearing this in mind in the wake of an orgy of rioting that makes Bradford, Burnley and Oldham look tame. Are language, diet and a few miles of murky seawater such great divides any more?

We might convince ourselves that racism, poverty, frustration and opportunism could never provide such an incendiary mix here as they have across the Channel: after all, unemployment and discrimination are so much worse over there.

Think again. A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week re-opened our cupboard doors to expose the skeletons of racism, and they’re not a pretty sight. There’s the elitism that assumes that white British culture is obviously superior, and which allows for equality as long as minorities attempt to imitate ‘our’ ways; and the ‘situated racism’, the rather uglier assumptions such as those of white tenants who consider their Bangladeshi neighbours to be inferior and unhygienic.

For those who aren’t convinced by the work of academics, don’t forget that last Friday saw the desecration of more than 40 graves in a Muslim cemetery in Birmingham. The ugliness isn’t that far from the surface.

So let’s not feel smug about the relative progress we’ve made towards community cohesion. And neither should we kid ourselves that we can solve the problems of racism, suspicion and inequality with a few short-term pathfinder programmes and a clutch of beacon councils.

The first lesson in community support, and the one we find most inconvenient to learn, is that it must be long term. And that demands funding, but - more challengingly - it demands persistence. Each community, in each generation, needs to learn afresh in its own context what community cohesion really means. There are no short cuts.

Julian Dobson, editor

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