Vive La France! What the French can Teach us

Paul Greenberg

5/23/2007 12:01:00 AM - 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.

In Nicolas ("The American") Sarkozy, the French went for a presidential candidate who promised to revive values like "work, authority, morality, respect and merit." How Reaganesque.

What's more, the winner openly proclaimed himself a friend of America even in these trying times, when the only unifying ethos Europeans can claim is anti-Americanism.

This was the year the French finally had had it with their long slow decline into mediocrity and below. The triumph of Nicolas Sarkozy represents their Ronald Reagan moment, their Margaret Thatcher turnaround. At least let's hope so.

It won't be easy rousing France out of its own version of Carterism. The symptoms are all there-the 9 percent unemployment rate (22 percent for able-bodied persons under the age of 24), the welfare programs the state can less and less afford even as they sap individual initiative, the cultural miasma styled multiculturalism, the growing ring of slums reserved for Muslim immigrants around every big city, the rising crime rate and sporadic rioting Š to all of which the powers that be responded with little more than a Gallic shrug.

At the center of the French slide has been the disintegration of the family: From 1970 to 2005, the divorce rate in France went from 12 percent to almost 40 percent; 20 percent of all French couples are unwed; a third of all French mothers live alone; 40 percent of all French children are born to unmarried couples Š and so sadly on. (Sound familiar?)

Christianity, whether the Catholic or Protestant variety, has faded as an influence in France, as it has all over Western Europe, while the old secular faiths, chief among them communism and socialism, have lost their appeal, too.

Nicholas Sarkozy, a tough-talking minister of the interior in the previous government, has his work cut out for him and the odds stacked against him. But they said Reagan and Thatcher wouldn't change things, either, just before both did. Dramatically.

By their votes, the French have said they're ready to reverse course, but being ready for change and actually changing are two different things. It's one thing to prescribe strong medicine, another to take it.

Whatever the difficulties ahead for France, there is a new sense of hope in the air, a feeling of renewed confidence. As if the French were about to have, to use Ronald Reagan's phrase, a new beginning.

How strange, then, that just as Old Europe becomes new again, our own newly elected Congress proposes to reverse the Reagan Revolution. Capital gains would be taxed heavily again, ignoring a lesson that has been taught again and again since the Kennedy round of tax cuts: The lower the tax rates on capital, the more jobs it produces - and the more government revenue. (April's federal tax revenues were the highest of any month in American history, up 11 percent over the previous year.)

But under the Democrats' proposed new budget, the economic boom that the Bush tax cuts have fueled could be cut short, smothered by higher tax rates.

Just as the French awaken from the old nostrums that have made their economy one of the sickest in Europe, here a new Congress seems determined to adopt them here. Yes, strange. And dangerous.