The French Lesson

Saturday, April 30, 2005

The French do not all think alike, nor do Americans. Each of our countries has champions of liberty as well as practitioners of, well, let’s just say “other things.” Nevertheless, the French share a great many superficial judgments in their estimation of Americans and America, just as Americans, who also differ tremendously from one region to another, hold the same kind of judgments about France and the French. Many readers of this Digest are well acquainted with the bent and bias of the characterizations we have used to describe one another during the past several years.

Less well known are the views of those French and Americans who have a great deal in common, who share an urbane view of the world, a commitment to individual liberty and free markets, and a belief in the idea and power of freedom. “Lamentable” is the only word to describe this state of affairs because their views, when we have the good fortune to encounter them, make rich and rewarding reading.

Such a French view was introduced to me by an old friend in Paris, at a dinner one week following George W. Bush’s reelection in November 2004. It was an editorial analysis of French-American politics that had been published several days earlier in the weekly news magazine Valeurs Actuelles (Contemporary Values). At the end of the evening he gave it to me, and the next day I departed for San Francisco with the editorial unread.

Over Christmas, I looked at it more closely and was astonished!

The essay that follows, written by a remarkable Frenchman, is about France and the French, about the value of freedom, and about America and Europe. His observations will come as a surprise to some and are, by any measure, unusually astute. The welcome perspective is held by more French men and women than Americans may suspect; those men and women possess both strong loyalties to France and equally long memories of the value of the French-American relationship.

The American Lesson
By Olivier Dassault.

Will the Europeans, and particularly the French, learn from the last American elections and finally admit it makes more sense to take America as it is than to redraw it into what one would expect it to be? A change of heart in this respect would certainly not be detrimental to bilateral relations.

Were the French to vote in the U.S. election, they would have overwhelmingly endorsed John Kerry over George W. Bush. So it was reported, at least. It was the Americans, however, who were called to the ballots.

And they gave George Bush a handsome majority. They even returned a Republican majority to Congress. For four years, throughout the first George W. Bush mandate, it had been argued that the 2000 election had been stolen and that the president’s policies did not reflect the views of the American people. This cannot be said in good faith any more.

America, we now realize, is a country that doesn’t hate tax cuts, that goes along quietly with budget deficits, and that is not very unhappy about the strong economic recovery and the low unemployment rate it experienced last year (twice as low as in France). As for foreign policy issues, there was no real parting of views between Bush and Kerry. A solid majority is confident that President Bush does what is required in order to conduct the war on terror and to achieve peace in Iraq. So that, at the very least, America will get out of this difficult situation with honor.

It is ironic, rather, that while America preferred Bush, the cowboy from Texas, to Kerry, the intellectual from Massachusetts, the French liberals cast their lot with Kerry, the candidate with a bourgeois allure, whose concerns were definitely not those of the common man. They even forgave him for being a friend of Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the French business spokesman and—to them—the devil incarnate. It helps, apparently, to be an American and a Democrat.

There was much talk, before and after the election, about a divided America, a deep cleavage between right and left. Every election brings about a measure of polarization. Nothing can be done about that. After all, many presidential elections have been won in France by a 1 or a 2 percent margin. It has not led necessarily to civil wars. All in all, situations where a candidate gets over 80 percent of the vote are more disquieting and raise more questions about the condition of democracy. [Translator’s note: This is a reference to the French presidential election in the late spring of 2002 in which Jacques Chirac received about 80 percent of the vote to about 20 percent for Jean-Marie Le Pen.]

The plain truth is that the old institutions of young America fare much better than the much younger ones of old Europe. The American Constitution was drafted more than two centuries ago. Once again, it has been validated, even if some lawyers are getting paid handsomely in order to contest one voting result or another. As for the European Constitution—it is still in its infancy.

The European Parliament has just axed the not yet confirmed European Commission on the grounds that one of its members was too assertive in professing a belief in Christianity. George Bush has just been reelected for being an assertive Christian.

Our old Europe is no longer sure about its roots or its frontiers. Young America is just as sure of its past as it is of its future. America has managed to preserve its faith while we have consigned much of ours—either faith in God, or in our countries, or in liberty—to history. What is an invaluable asset for America should be an asset for us too.

It would serve us well, as we build anew our continent after centuries of national wars that were, in fact, civil wars between Europeans, to pay attention to the values we share with America, as we did right after World War II and have done throughout the first decades of European unification. One prerequisite is to get rid of some of our prejudice and particularly of an absurd superiority complex that is sometimes conducive to hatred. Another is that we stop taking seriously Michael Moore’s distorted renditions of American politics.

We have embraced American technology as well as much of the American way of life. We have picked up American financial techniques. We have followed the United States in deregulating transportation, energy, and telecoms because it works and creates prosperity (despite some failures). On the other hand, we keep an overblown welfare system of our own that undermines our growth potential.

We value comfort, just like Americans. On the other hand, we are less touchy about individual liberties and more prepared to believe that the government knows better as far as the public interest is concerned.

Much misunderstanding between America and Europe (and especially between America and France) stems from our loss of confidence in ourselves. The French don’t really know anymore who they are or where they are going. They fear they will lose their jobs, and they feel marginalized as well, whether it is from an emerging united Europe or from the globalized world. Anti-Americanism provides them with some last-ditch creed with which to identify.

The 2004 election has shown that Americans still have faith in themselves. In order for us to heal the breach with the United States, we must first reconcile with ourselves. We must revive our love for freedom.

The election confirmed that the American president who was our guest in Normandy on June 6 last year is indeed the president that meets the expectations of the American nation now. Let’s face it. Let’s build on it. We have much in common. And we have been in many fights together, from Normandy to Afghanistan.