Sunday, December 18, 2011

France (bashing?) in American Politics.

Political campaigns seem much more brutal in the U.S. than in France, even presidential primaries. One of the distinct features of American politics is negative campaigning - mostly TV ads showing the opponent in a negative light, something unheard of in France.
Despite the feeling that every year, lobbyists reach new lows, negative campaigns have always been part of American politics - since the Founding Fathers.  (Adams vs. Jefferson was so bad so bad that it almost “tore the Republic apart”, says one historian - see here too)

All sorts of themes can be exploited, including surprising ones.
In 2004, for instance, John Kerry, the Democratic candidate running against George W. Bush was portrayed as “being too French”.
(John Kerry) is said to betray a dubious fondness for things French, even the language. A recent comment from Commerce Secretary Don Evans that the Massachusetts Democrat is "of a different political stripe and looks French" was only the latest of several jibes, mainly from conservative talk-show hosts and columnists, that have included allusions to "Monsieur Kerry" and "Jean Chéri." (NYTimes)

France-bashing has often been a favorite of some Americans, usually Republicans, and its popularity took a new hit among pro-war conservatives in the months following 2003 when France opposed the war in Iraq at the UN Security Council. (Remember "freedom fries"?).

To the Republicans, France embodies everything they hate about Europe:
-a penchant for conciliatory resolutions,
-a centralized government,
-high taxation,
-elitism and intellectualism and,
-a more collective mentality.

But this year, the irony is that the two most serious contenders for the GOP presidential candidacy have had some unique exposition to French culture:
  • Newt Gingrich - the favorite in the poll at this point - was partly raised in France, where his step-father was stationed. Gingrich had a sort of epiphany when he visited Verdun. (here and here) and he has compared himself to... De Gaulle in the past. He also likes to present himself as a professor of history (which he has been, despite his surprising comments on international affairs sometimes). Not exactly you’re anti-intellectual Republican. 
  • As for Mitt Romney, (2nd in the polls), he not only spent time in France as a Mormon missionary,  - and not exactly the kind of frugal life he has tried to present. (see here or here) - but he even speaks French and has not tried to hide it. This, however, has not prevented him from making ridiculous statement on France such as the notion that marriage in France can be “contracted in renewable seven-year terms”. Unheard of in France!
Romney’s French connection was not missed on a pro-Obama SuperPAC (political action committee) called AmericanLP who produced this video to be aired on running on MSNBC, CNBC, and Bloomberg TV.
The clip shows Romney welcoming francophone volunteers to the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, and it is mock-subtitled with past comments of his that show he kept changing his mind (Romney is often accused of being a flip-flop).

According to the press release, it is “payback for Republicans mocking John Kerry for his French-speaking abilities in ads”.
So our goal here is to remind GOP primary and caucus voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that Mitt Romney is a left wing radical who has, in all likelihood, hung out with socialistic, atheistic cheese-eaters like Jean Paul Sartre.” (here)
I personally think it is rather funny. If anything, it makes fun of France-bashing in some Republican circles.

To be fair, France can be the butt of jokes outside Republican circles:
"A lot of folks are still demanding more evidence before they actually consider Iraq a threat. For example, France wants more evidence. And you know I'm thinking, the last time France wanted more evidence they rolled right through Paris with the German flag." —David Letterman
"American tourists in Paris are reported to being yelled at, spit upon, and attacked by the French. Thank God things are getting back to normal." —Jay Leno 
      • The brand Subway in 2005 ran this campaign linking the French to chickens (a symbol of cowardice):

      A number of reasons why France and the French are often the butt of jokes have been given over the years:

      •  the power explanation: some say it's because there is no French lobby in the U.S. because French immigration to North America was more or less insignificant. (cf. Justin Vaisse)
      • the Universalist explanation: others point out to the fact that both countries were born of revolutions, and claim for universalism (Bourdieu)
      • the British explanation: as a follow up to the Romney ad last week, Slate had an article on where France-bashing may come from, and it may be mostly from the British. The title of their article is, however greatly misleading, I think: "Why do Americans Hate the French" is immensely exaggerated.
      I believe the explanations are numerous and complex and they are based on cross-cultural differences which are both subtle and deeply embedded in our views of the world and ourselves. It is the ongoing exploration of these differences which has motivated this blog.  It is fascinating when current events give us an opportunity to reflect on these differences and misunderstandings.

      That being said, the whole topic of "France bashing" should probably not be taken too seriously. As a French man who has been to the U.S. many times over the last 25 years, I have never personally experienced negative bias for being French, and I have always been very welcome. If anything, being French has helped me a great deal. 
      The paradox is that the French may be the stinky Pepe Le Pew to some, yet, French perfume and clothing are among the most popular; France may be a socialist country, but a lot of Americans dream of visiting Paris (and a lot of them do). These apparent paradoxes and my own experience makes me believe that there is no  much harm done, and I strongly disagree with that "Americans hate the French".

      Last, but not least, some comedians are also great defenders of France :

      Monday, December 12, 2011

      Obama's New Nationalism.

      Last week, Barack Obama gave one of his most radical speeches (YouTube video)as of yet on the economy which may very well serve as a founding theme for his campaign.

      The president’s  main topic was economic regulation and his role model was Roosevelt, not Franklin Delano but Theodore, the Progressive Republican president who attacked big business and asked for more government regulation.

      President Obama symbolically gave his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, the small town where Theodore Roosevelt gave his New Nationalism speech over a hundred years ago.
      Invoking a Republican president was a clever move - it adds credibility to his claim of rising above partisan politics. (The Economist).

      The most interesting part, however, was not the symbolic historical context but the crafting of the speech itself.

      First, it conveyed a classic opposition between BIG (banks, factories, monopolies) and SMALL (farmers, children, innocent, hard-working Americans, women / unemployed / elderly / people with disabilities), and between the FEW (wealthy, greed, 1%) and the MANY (the middle-class). Such a systematic opposition would not fly well in American discourse for its smacks of class warfare - which the president denied doing - if it was not framed in a way that can be accepted by an American audience.  So at the core of the president’s speech lie some distinct traditional American core beliefs: the American Dream, American Exceptionalism and a strong sense of community spirit.

      In order to achieve this successfully, the speech relied on two powerful metaphors often used in political rhetoric: a BUILDING and a GAME metaphor.
      The main advantage of these metaphors is that they imply the participation of several people (a community) and work nicely for a good understanding of national unity for a common purpose. It also conveys the need for rules (i.e. regulation) in a non threatening way by emphasizing on the notion of fairness and justice. You need order and rules to pay a game and you need a blueprint to build something.

      -The BUILDING metaphor can be used for positive or negative assessments depending on whether the foundations are morally good or bad. The economy can be “a house of cards”, a “business model built on breaking the law, cheating customers, and making risky bets” or on bubbles and financial speculation, or it can be “built to last”, “on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country.”.  It can apply for the middle-class (“rebuilding the middle class “), or for the entire nation (“how America was built”, “investments that built this country”). It can also be used literally to talk about the nation’s infrastructure (“investments that built this country”).

      In a similar way, the GAME metaphor is used for positive or negative evaluation: the system in Washington “can be rigged” or used by “the highest bidder”, but everyone knows that it is morally wrong “when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”. So what naturally follows is the need for rules (i.e. regulation) so that “everyone plays by the same rules.” because rules are morally good ("They want to have rules in place that don't put them at a disadvantage for doing the right thing",). A game can also be inclusive when “the playing field is larger”; “everyone plays by the same rules, from Wall Street to Main Street.”)
      The GAME metaphor is thus closely associated to the idea of FAIRNESS and JUSTICE, with the underlying image of BALANCE. This allows Obama to take a moral stance on inequality and unfairness. The GAME metaphor also plays well with the American belief that LIFE IS A RACE. (“The race we want to win, the race we can win is a race”). But here too, it is not any race, it is the “race to the top”, as opposed to “the race to the bottom” (a race for lower wages for instance) since good is UP and bad is DOWN (see conceptual metaphor theory, Lakoff). This fist well the classical social ladder metaphor (“the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk”).This is even more clearly illustrated by the final sentence of the speech : "I believe America is on the way up."

      The emphasis on community is further exemplified by a call for bipartisanship (“a vision that's been embraced in the past by people of both parties for more than 200 years“), through the evocation of historical political figures from both parties - not only Theodore Roosevelt, but also F.D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. A sense of national unity is also rendered by trying to 'bridge the gap' between “Main Street and Wall Street” by using positive image of wealthy figures  (Henry ford, Warren Buffet or “Andy Grove, the legendary former CEO of Intel”) as well as corporations praised for their responsible attitude (‘Big Three auto companies”) or by linking CEOs to local communities, particularly small Town America:
      For the CEO of Marvin's, it's about the community. He said: ‘These are people we went to school with. We go to church with them. We see them in the same restaurants. Indeed, a lot of us have married local girls and boys.”

      Obama frames the argument by appealing to American pragmatism, claiming that the trickle-down theory has been tried before but history shows “It has never worked”. Yet, at the same time, he acknowledges that “rugged individualism” and “healthy skepticism of too much government “  is part America’s ‘natural’ identity, making it even part of “America’s DNA”. One might draw from this an opposition between nature and culture. But more importantly, it implies some (protestant) belief in the deterministic nature of the American identity. It is something determined by nature, or determined by logic. The rationale for regulation is not simply that it is morally right, but it is also (and foremost) that it makes economic sense: “That is not politics. That's just math”. Henry Ford is praised for his pragmatic approach: “Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made

      In the same way way, the reality of the American Dream is made evident by a traditional pragmatic argument - the very fact that “immigrants from around the world historically have flocked to our shores” is proof that the promise that “even if you're born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class” is real.
      The expression The American Dream itself is never used in the speech but the narrative is - “that this is a place where you can make it if you try.” is believed to be “at the very heart of America”. Even if it has been said before that Obama himself may be the embodiment of the American Dream, he cleverly uses another a personal personal and  highly symbolic illustration - the very story of his grandmother who “started as a secretary, ended up being a vice president of a bank”, which means that Obama himself cannot be biased against banks on principle. Unfortunately, this is a reality of the past and now “the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded” because “hard work stopped paying off for too many people”.
      The solution lies in the community because MANY is better than A FEW and “we’re greater together than we are on our own”. This is an effective way to provide a positive backdrop for his political solutions:  more progressive taxes, and universal health insurance, which are based on the idea of an entire community sharing the burden.

      The other uniquely American narrative is American Exceptionalism: if LIFE IS A RACE and if UP IS GOOD, then America must be at the top. Here again, Obama takes for granted the narrative of American Exceptionalism by presenting a series of superlatives and comparatives:
      the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known;
      the most productive workers;
      the most innovative companies turned out the best products on Earth.”
      And this is not just a thing of the past, it is still true today:
      still home to the world's most productive workers.
      still home to the world's most innovative companies.
      prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.
      nobody does innovation better than America. Nobody does it better. No one has better colleges. Nobody has better universities. Nobody has a greater diversity of talent”
      If nothing else, the logical conclusion to this series of superlative can only be “That's why we're the greatest nation on Earth. That's what our greatest companies understand.”.
      One of goals is of course to boost confidence in America in these times of crisis and renew a value highly praised in American credo: optimism.

      President Obama treats Theodore Roosevelt as a prophet with "a vision" who "took the same message across the country". But if Obama gave one of his most radical speeches, it is still rather consensual and tells a very conservative national narrative if you compare it to Theodore Roosevelt’s speech in 1910:
      It has become entirely clear that we must have government supervision of the capitalization, not only of public-service corporations, including, particularly, railways, but of all corporations doing an interstate business.One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.
      Quoting Lincoln, Roosevelt also said:
      Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration”.
      Of course, this sort of strong radical rhetoric would be unthinkable in today’s American political discourse especially from a former or current president, let alone a Republican. In fact, president Obama is careful to say that “This isn't about class warfare. This is about the Nation's welfare.” (notice the nice parallelism and the alliteration) thus not only raising the stakes but also making it a question of patriotism.
      In fine, the parallelism between 1910 now implied by Obama’s choice of venue and references is a smart move as it also demonstrates how different the Republican party has become. (Washington Post). This will undoubtedly be a theme used by democrats in the presidential campaign.

      Even if Obama’s speech in Osawatomie was cleverly crafted, one may deplore that his argumentation which, while being pragmatic, only relies on economics. As Jedediah Purdy reminds us, Roosevelt “put citizenship -- civic and political engagement -- at the heart of the good life he wanted for Americans." In Obama’s speech, “even education, that most civic of public investments, is just about economic opportunity.
      That being said, different times, different words, and Obama’s speech probably reflects quite well the priorities of today’s world in which well-being and happiness must be measured in material terms.

      Sunday, December 4, 2011

      The Threat of the (Prussian) Spiked Helmet Resurrected in France.

      Old habits die hard, they say, but so do old-time prejudices, even when you think they are done and over with.
      As much as you would expect the French (far-right) National Front to be prejudiced against anything non-French, including other Europeans -it is after all their raison d’être - and indeed they are, it was much more surprising, and even quite shocking to hear members of the French socialist party fall into the trap of anti-German sentiment.

      Last week, a rising star but a maverick in the Socialist Party (PS), Arnaud Montebourg compared Angela Merkel to Bismarck.
      "La question du nationalisme allemand est en train de resurgir au travers de la politique à la Bismarck de Mme Merkel"  (« The question of German nationalism has re-emerged through Mrs Merkel’s Bismarckian policy»). (Le Figaro)  
      For those of you who might not know, Otto von Bismarck was the leader of Prussia in the late 19th century and, more interestingly, he won the war against France in 1870. In other words, Montebourg has hereby resurrected an old French figure of national humiliation - the Prussian spiked helmet. It is also a relevant metaphor for the left, as the 1871 defeat saw a surge in left-wing anti-german nationalism, during the Paris Commune that followed. 
      It may also not be surprising that these remarks should have been made by a rather young politician born some 20 years after WWII, free of the taboo regarding Germany.

      Worse however, another (but less prominent) member of the PS compared Sarkozy with Daladier, (Le Monde) the weak French Prime Minister (called President du Conseil back then) who negotiated the Munich Accords with Hitler in 1938, thus making an implied comparison between Mrs Merkel and Hitler. (see Wikipedia for details)
      I understand that the German-driven austerity measures have upset a lot of people in Europe, among whom the Greeks have been the most vocal in their Germanophobia (see here). But that the French should fall into that trap is something unheard of since the end of World War II. Not only are these remarks ridiculous but as such they have (and as could be expected), caused great controversy France (TF1).

      Arthur Goldhammer rightfully commented that this “has broken the taboo, which has largely held since World War II, against attributing policy differences to national character and ulterior designs rather than to identifiable interests.” and I also agree with his political analysis that this serves the National Front rather than the Socialist Party, which he claims to support.
      The popular Franco-German green politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit accused Montebourg of bad patriotism and using Left-wing National Front words. (“C'est du mauvais cocorico. Il fait du Front national à gauche" TF1)
      This of course has been seized by the right-wing majority party to accuse the opposition socialistrs of resurrecting the “old demons of Germanophobia” (TF1).
      Meanwhile, there is great embarrassment on the left and in the PS, especially for its Presidential candidate François Hollande who is expected in Germany next week. Even though he has personally made no comment, his campaign director Pierre Moscovici warned the left against anti-german sentiments (RTL).

      This is a very unusual development as nationalist sentiments have been traditionally used by the French right to gain support of their electorate, at least since the 1930s. 
      The main question is whether this is simple (bad) anti-Sarkozy political strategy or if it is the sign of a new left-wing nationalism? Might anti-german rhetoric appeal to the electorate in these times of great uncertainty and confunsion? I doubt it. 
      That being said, a lot of people are angry at the idea that national budgets should be overseen by European institutions, as Markel suggested. This idea is indeed a blow to national sovereignty, which could mean the end of the socialisme à la française. Maybe not all a bad thing.

      NOTE: During a debate on French TV last night on this topic, a former French president advisor, Marie-France Garaud reminded the audience that Bismarck is actually a popular figure in Germany because he unified the country for the first time. Indeed, contrary to France which has been more or less the same unified country since 843, Germany consisted of hundreds of small principalities, duchies and counties during the Holy Empire up until 1871. So what sounds like an insult in France, simply because Bismarck represents the enemy that defeated the French, is nothing of the sort to the Germans. Phew!
      One last point: we should all appreciate that the name "France" is derived from that of Germanic tribes, the Franks who basically invaded most of northern France. In effect, we're all Germans!

      Empire consisted of hundreds of smaller sub-units,principalitiesduchiescounties,

      Banks Sued: Too big to Fail but Big Enough to Pay!

      Last week's news that the State of Massachussetts is suing the four major US banks - Bank of America,, JPMorgan, Chase, Wells Fargo & Citigroup.- and one financial company, GMAC for "unfair and deceptive practices" (including 'robot signing' - see our post) is great news and a good sign that some things are finally about to change for many Americans. (NYTimes)
      As the Attorney General, Ms. Coakley said in her statement:
      This is the first comprehensive lawsuit seeking to obtain accountability.(…/…) The banks may think they are too big to fail or too big to care about the impact of their actions, but we believe they are not too big to have to obey the law."
      This is interesting because, as often, real change in America starts at the state level. 
      When many state prosecutors are trying to come to a deal with the banks for a cash settlement ‘for faulty foreclosure practices and possibly reforms to foreclosure practices’, other state prosecutors have rejected deals and have sued banks – 'Nevada sued Bank of America in September, New York has launched a broad investigation into a dozen financial institutions' (FT) and California announced it would not agree to a settlement over foreclosure abuses that state and federal officials have been working on for more than a year (The

      No doubt that this is the indirect result of the different protests and sit-ins, and other Occupy Movements which have demonstrated people’s anger over Wall Street. It seems that the ability for states to go after the banks is also the result of the Dodd-Frank legislation which restricted the ability of federal authorities to bar states from acting in such cases. (Too bad Frank Dodds is retiring!).
      One of the reasons for the current crisis, as you can see in the following graph, is that banks have indeed become so big that they have no accountability.
      Too big to fail indeed:

      The big argument from the banks in the '90s was that without deregulation, they would lose out to foreign banks. This is an argument that all the banks in the world used to justify their mergers. So with the complicity of governments, they have become too big to fail….but not too big to pay. No doubt they will use this recession to scare people into thinking that the entire financial system may be at risk if they are asked to pay too much.
      Then what? Then, they should be split up. 
      Even conservatives agree:
      Big banks are bad for free markets. Far from being engines of free enterprise, they are conducive to what might be called “crony capitalism,” (National Review, cited in MSN Money)
      Indeed, if you believe in free enterprise, split up the banks.