Paul Greenberg

Any American wondering what this year's presidential election in France can teach us need only recall this country's back in 1980. That was the last year of the steady demoralization of American politics known as the Carter administration. It was the year the American electorate finally had had enough, and made a U-turn. In the right direction.

The French have been in decline even longer under Jacques Chirac, who by the time he left office had become as irrelevant as Jimmy Carter during the final year of his ever shrinking presidency. The French were ready for a change - just as Americans were in 1980, when Ronald Reagan came along radiating what was then a strange new sensation in American politics: optimism.

It is hard, thank goodness, to recapture the general sense of hopelessness that marked the American mood in 1980. How describe it? It was a most un-American mix of entropy and the acceptance of it. Around the globe, this country was in retreat and, worse, being told by its president to get used to it. According to Jimmy Carter, Americans needed to get over our "inordinate fear of communism" - even while Soviet proxies, including large numbers of Cuban mercenaries, were spreading out all over the Third World.

Dispensing with any intermediaries, the Soviets themselves had just invaded Afghanistan - with little or no opposition at the time. Meanwhile, the American hostages in Teheran were deep into their captivity. And there was no sign they'd be released as long as the mullahs had nothing to fear from Washington.

At home, the Carter touch was evident everywhere, like one big smudge. There was the double-digit inflation that gave the economy a positively South American flavor. Unemployment hovered around 7 percent, and interest rates topped 20 percent. Gasoline lines came to be expected. Americans, especially the more sophisticated sort, were starting to accept malaise as the natural order of things. Stagflation, it was called.

When he dared suggest that the country could stage a comeback at home and abroad, Ronald Reagan was either denounced as a dangerous radical or dismissed as some kind of dolt - "an amiable dunce," Democratic eminence Clark Clifford would call him. He was amiable, all right, but no dunce.

In the last year of the Carter collapse, there was little but a general dispiritedness left. No wonder the American electorate voted for change.

This year, so did the French. Despite a destructive multi-party electoral system that usually defeats any hope of national consensus, this year French voters were actually given something like a straight choice between left and right - and flocked to the right.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.