What France can teach us

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - 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 unAmer­i­can 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 in­terme- di­aries, the Sovi­ets them­selves had just in­vaded Afghanistan — with lit­tle or no op­po­si­tion at the time. Mean­while, the Amer­i­can hostages in Tehran were deep into their cap­tiv­ity. And there was no sign they would 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. The dou­ble-digit in­fla­tion 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, started to ac­cept malaise as the nat­u­ral or­der of things. Stagfla­tion, it was called.

When he dared sug­gest 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 mul­ti­party elec­toral sys­tem that usu­ally de­feats any hope of na­tional con­sen­sus, this year French vot­ers ac­tu­ally got 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.” This was the year the French fi­nally 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.

Ni­co­las 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 Mr. Rea­gan and Mrs. Thatcher wouldn’t change things, ei­ther, just be­fore both did so — dra­mat­i­cally.

By their votes, the French have said they’re ready to re- verse 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, 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 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.

Paul Green­berg is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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