A Gal­lic take on U. S. pol­i­tics

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - DOYLE McMANUS doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com Twit­ter: @ doylem­c­manus

Ivisited friends last week in Brit­tany, the French province whose wild At­lantic coast re­sem­bles North­ern Cal­i­for­nia or Maine. And what do you think a din­ner ta­ble full of smart French peo­ple wanted to talk about? The Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

I’ve al­ways found it re­mark­able how much at­ten­tion peo­ple in other coun­tries pay to Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Is it be­cause our po­lit­i­cal per­son­al­i­ties are so com­pelling? More likely it’s be­cause the de­ci­sions our pres­i­dents make end up af­fect­ing other peo­ple’s lives.

France has a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion com­ing up too, and most Amer­i­cans haven’t given it a mo­ment’s thought. But when it comes to U. S. pol­i­tics, the French can name many of our lead­ing can­di­dates.

My hosts were a French cou­ple, Pas­cal and Mar­tine Le­be­hot; he’s a high school teacher, she’s an au­di­tor for the re­gional gov­ern­ment ( and the cousin of one of my wife’s old­est friends, which is how we met them).

They mostly had one ques­tion: “Will Hil­lary win?”

They’re taken, un­der­stand­ably, with the Clin­ton fam­ily saga: A charis­matic pres­i­dent falls into a sex scan­dal, only to re­gain his pop­u­lar­ity — “You mean that doesn’t hap­pen only in France?” Pas­cal asked mock­ingly — and might now be suc- ceeded by his wife.

They wanted to know if Amer­i­cans were ready to elect a woman, some­thing France has never done. “It’s a good idea,” Mar­tine ad­vised. “Just look at An­gela Merkel and Mar­garet Thatcher.”

They wanted to know which fam­ily would come out on top, Clin­ton or Bush. “Dy­nas­ties — just like France be­fore the revo­lu­tion,” Pas­cal said.

“This Bush is smarter than his brother, right?” Mar­tine asked. That’s his rep­u­ta­tion, I said, but he’s just as con­ser­va­tive as Ge­orge W. Bush. She made an un­happy lit­tle moue.

But there are also in­sur­gent can­di­dates among the Repub­li­cans, I added, among them Ted Cruz, whose fa­ther groomed him to be a leader from a young age. “Ah,” said Pas­cal. “Just like Joseph Kennedy and his sons” — an anal­ogy no Amer­i­can pun­dit has no­ticed, as far as I know.

They re­coiled in mock hor­ror when I ex­plained that the Repub­li­cans could have 16 can­di­dates in next year’s pri­maries. ( France’s cen­ter- right Repub­li­cains have only one can­di­date, for­mer Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy. He re­cently re­named the party, ap­par- ently to make it sound more Amer­i­can. Go fig­ure.)

Un­wisely, I tried to im­press them by reel­ing off all 16 GOP names. I could only re­mem­ber 15. ( Sorry, Gov. Bobby Jin­dal. It must have been the wine.)

They were in­ter­ested to hear that our Repub­li­cans are di­vided over immigration, just like theirs. But our im­mi­grants are mostly Lati­nos, while theirs are mostly Mus­lim, so the is­sues quickly di­verge.

They were in­trigued that the GOP field, with two Cuban Amer­i­cans and one African Amer­i­can, is more di­verse than the Democrats’.

And, as if to prove that French civ­i­liza­tion is still su­pe­rior, they had never heard of Le Don­ald. ( Sorry, Mr. Trump.)

“There’s one thing I’ve al­ways been cu­ri­ous about,” Pas­cal said. “What’s a GOP?” ( He pro­nounced it to rhyme with “top.”)

A few days ear­lier, another French friend had posed a more prob­ing ques­tion with gen­uine puz­zle­ment. “Your econ­omy is do­ing a lot bet­ter than ours,” he said. “Why is ev­ery­one so mad at Obama?”

The short ver­sion, I said, is that we’re a grouchy na­tion right now — grouchy about an econ­omy that’s not de­liv­er­ing higher in­comes to or­di­nary peo­ple, grouchy about the in­abil­ity of our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem to solve prob­lems.

The French have a word for that: “la morosité,” or “mo­rose­ness,” a na­tional funk at which Parisians be­lieve they ex­cel.

But you don’t look very mo­rose, I told Pas­cal as he brought out a tray of many cheeses.

“We’re re­ally quite mo­rose,” he replied with­out a trace of irony.

And for many of the same rea­sons we’re grouchy. Twoin­come pro­fes­sional cou­ples like Pas­cal and Mar­tine are do­ing fine; they’re plan­ning a va­ca­tion trip to New York City next month.

But they’re wor­ried about their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren in an econ­omy that’s not pro­duc­ing enough jobs. They’re an­gry at politi­cians of both right and left who seem to spend more time cul­ti­vat­ing wealthy pa­trons and run­ning for of­fice than solv­ing prob­lems.

Af­ter all the spats be­tween France and the United States over the last 12 years, it turns out that we have at least one thing in com­mon: la morosité. Cit­i­zens of the West’s two found­ing democ­ra­cies don’t think democ­racy is work­ing prop­erly any more.

But they still wanted to know who’s go­ing to win the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

I in­sisted, bor­ingly, that it was far too soon to tell, so Pas­cal bravely stepped in.

“Hil­lary seems like the most log­i­cal can­di­date,” he de­clared. “But in France, af­ter one party has the pres­i­dency for two terms, a lot of peo­ple just think it’s time for a change. I sus­pect it’s the same with you.”

Maybe the French un­der­stand us bet­ter than we think.

Will Hil­lary win? Is Jeb smarter than Ge­orge? And who is this Le Don­ald?

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