Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The French Strawman

For decades, it's taken only one word to strike fear into the heart of Americans, and that word is France. Of course Americans aren't afraid of a new Napoleonic army invading the Western hemisphere, what they fear instead is the French economic model. In American political discourse, 'France' is often used not so much as a country but as an ideology; a boogey man representing a bloated welfare state with high taxation, widespread unemployment, overregulation and low productivity. It's a classic strawman argument.

Over the past two weeks, as debate has raged in the US over Barack Obama's revolutionary budget plan, the use of this anecdotal device has skyrocketed. Republicans are calling the proposed Budget the "final moves toward socialism," saying it will lead to the "Europeanization of America." Essentially, the proposed budget does three main things that have elicited this reaction:

-An introduction of higher taxes on the top 3% of income earners
-A funding mandate for definitive healthcare reform
-A massive expansion of the federal debt

David Leonhardt of The New York Times has called this budget, "nothing less than an attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of Ronald Reagan and his supporters. ... More than anything else, the proposals seek to reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years." This editorial in the Wall Street Journal this week does a great job of breaking down the tax aspect of it.

Considering the changes afoot, it was only a matter of time before the F word started getting tossed around. On the March 2nd edition of Meet the Press, former McCain advisor Mike Murphy managed to work 'France' into the discussion over this budget a total of five times, no small feat for a short segment. According to Murphy, Obama can "hardly wait to turn us into France," and he is squandering his political capital on a "failed ideology." That ideology, a democratic social welfare state, is not only reviled by American conservatives but has also been deeply unpopular with Americans for decades, particularly after the Reagan revolution. Socialism in most Americans' minds is inseparable from Communism, which any American fifth grader can tell you was a failed ideology which the US triumphantly defeated in the cold war. So for some time the logic has been that if you can associate a policy with 'socialism,' or even better, with 'France,' you're going to have a pretty easy time making the policy unpopular with the American public (one only needs to look at the so-called "Death Tax" debate).

But in invoking the old France cliches, are Republicans missing the way the winds are currently blowing? Isn't it a bit odd that, at the same time that Republicans are trying to scare the American population by saying Obama wants to turn them into France, across the Atlantic Sarkozy is proclaiming the death of the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and the vindication of the European social model? If the French economic system translates to more regulation on banks and financial firms, more safety-net protections for people who lose their jobs, and more government action to protect the economy, what exactly is it in that image that would scare an American in 2009? Considering that the current crisis was largely the result of a lack of regulation in the US, 'Anglo-Saxon style capitalism run amok,' if you will, it seems almost absurd for Republicans in the US to still be using the French boogeyman tactic. They seem to be saying, "Look out America! Or else you could become like that country where everyone has healthcare, job security and pensions!" I'm oversimplifying of course, and I don't usually find myself in the position of being a strident defender of the French economic model, but it seems to me that Republicans don't have much of a leg to stand on here if they want to keep using the France-baiting.

I was curious to get the reaction of some of my French friends to this kind of talk. After all, they must have an opinion on the fact that their country still stands as the antithesis of America's self-image, the boogeyman in the closet children remain terrified of at bedtime. "I think it's funny," one French friend who works for the EC told me after seeing some of the comments being made in the US media. "In France we do the same thing with America if we want to scare people about Sarkozy. They say he is 'Sarko the American' and that he's trying to make France become America. That scares the French probably as much as Americans are scared to become France."

As we edge closer to a hammering out of the new "Bretton Woods 2" agreement that will reshape the world's economic structure, this France-America ideological labelling is likely to get even murkier. The ideal solution, as with most things, is probably a happy medium somewhere between the two.

1 comment:

Dale said...

And we here in the UK just stand between the two of you keeping the peace!