What France can teach us
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.