Thursday, February 12, 2009

Maybe This Is Why Conservatives Hate France

Mal Langdon/Reuters
I mean, just a guess.


Remember "freedom fries" and "freedom toast?" Of course, replacing the word French with the word freedom was punishment for France (not to mention the rest of the world) not supporting the American invasion of Iraq. But France has long been the butt of conservative jokes and the premise of lazy conservative arguments. 

In 2007, the Boston Globe obtained an internal strategy memo from Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. France bashing was key to his strategy for winning the Republican primary. The memo declared  that the European Union wanted to "drag America down to Europe's standards," adding: "That's where Hillary and the Dems would take us. Hillary = France." The memo also called for the campaign to print "First, not France" bumper stickers.

I can't count how many times, in political conversation, I've heard conservatives ask, "Do you want us to end up like France?!" Any conversation about universal healthcare inevitably turns to: "Sheesh, look at France!"

OK, look at France.
  • The World Health Organization reports that France has the best overall health system in the world. The U.S., which spends a higher portion of its GDP than any other country on healthcare, ranks 37 out of 191 countries--behind Columbia and Saudi Arabia. 
  • France ranks higher in Human Development Index than the U.S. (11 versus 15). 
  • France incarcerates a much smaller proportion of its population than does the United States (91 per 100,000 people versus 726 per 100,000 people). 
  • Oh, and they don't execute people. 
  • The French work less, vacation more, and live longer. 
Look at France!

I know, I know. Arrogance! Snootiness! Ungratefulness! These are some of the stereotypes about the French that seem pretty unpolitical. But the tenacity with which conservatives attack France shows it's more than just friendly ribbing. There's a crude strategy there, behind the silliness.

I think conservatives want to prevent Americans from viewing France as any kind of model worth imitating--a model of an excellent health system, for instance. More broadly, conservatives don't want the American people to consider an alternative approach--which the French often present--for dealing with economic and political elites--an approach that goes beyond electoral politics.

Sometimes conservatives' France-bashing seems downright hateful, which is understandable. Walk in their shoes for a moment. Imagine that your financial fortune depends upon keeping your countrymen from organizing to tangibly improve their own lives. Now, imagine you look across the Atlantic to a country that is in many ways like your own. And you see something like this:

Students carrying banners march in Rennes, western France

People in the streets. An organized, engaged, militant citizenry.

The truth is, the American people could learn a lot from the French. I don't mean we should start eating Brie. I mean we should get organized and stop taking so much crap. What I love about the latest French strike is that its demands were so broad, you could almost say it didn't have specific demands. It was a show of force from the working class, a reminder to the government that it should either remember who it serves or prepare for massive disruption, massive resistance. 

What would happen if we had just a glimpse of that in America again? How would it change our current situation, where we find ourselves weakly begging banks and CEOs to be responsible with our money? What might be accomplished?

The banks and CEOs hope we never find out.


Nate said...

First of all, I think you and I agree on a lot of things, but I think your post is too one sided. Here are my two biggest concerns about France:

1) Unemployment, but these are tough economic times (our current unemployment is 7.6%).

2) People in the streets. An organized, engaged, militant citizenry.

Camp Papa said...

The French, uh? Okay, as long as I can have a smoke-free and a dog-free restaurant.

I think T. J. said it well, "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories."

Amy said...

Hmmm, Dave. Never thought about it that way. I've never noticed that France is portrayed in the US as a "power to the people" kind of place, so why would conservatives single out that image to combat? Also, they have alot less people to look after than America does, could that have something to do with it? You raise some interesting points that I need to think more about.

Can we still make fun of them, just a little? Only good naturedly? They make fun of us--it's only fair! ;)

Better Than Machines said...

The post is proudly one-sided in a few different ways: I think France is not the crumbling place it is sometimes portrayed as. I think a lot of what is great about France is the direct result of "an organized, engaged, militant citizenry." Finally, I think the US could benefit from a little of that militant spirit. In fact, I would argue that most of the great progressive gains in American history (abolition of slavery, child labor laws, minimum wage, the weekend, women's suffrage, environmental protections, the new deal, social security, civil rights, etc.) resulted from "people in the streets" acting outside of electoral politics.

Can we still make fun of them? Of course! I mean, look at 'em! But we oughta get us some of that "general strike" every once in a while.

Elizabeth said...


I love France. Love the wine, love the cheese, love the cities, love the countryside...the list goes on and on. I'm not completely sold on their political institutions or some of their labor laws, but I think there are definitely plenty of nice things we can find to say about France.

I think one thing you don't mention that is extremely important in understanding Conservative "fear"- especially for the religiously-minded- is it's "rampant" moral relativism (leading the way for the rest of Europe). I think the statistics that get thrown around about non-belief strike at the very heart of what so many traditional, conservative people believe to be most important: religion. People fear that we will one day be a country (like France) where people don't even recognize a higher power.

Better Than Machines said...

Liz, that's a good point. I didn't touch on religion at all.

But I do think that "conservatives" (I should explain better what I mean when I say that) try to confuse the issue by making it seem like leftist economics and Godlessness cannot be separated.

Elizabeth said...

It could be a larger post about how the upper-echelons of the party manipulate the religious convictions of the lower and middle classes (especially in the South) to get huge benefits for the wealthy.

Get drafting on that.

Camp Papa said...

"Brie"? Isn't that the village where the Dancing Pony Tavern is? I wonder if they ever fixed the gates after the Nazgul knocked them down?

Amy said...

you are hilarious, dad. actually, i would like france alot more if there were some hobbits running around. that would improve any location.

Becky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Becky said...

J'adore la France.