As Americans, it’s often possible to have a good chuckle when we think of France. After all, what country has such a history of surrendering (the rest of the world bailed them out twice in the world wars), enslaving business owners through such a tangle of red-tape and taxation that discourages all but the most stalwart entrepreneurs, and guiding its citizens to a philosophical belief that it is their right to work no more than 35 hours per week and/or receive permanent welfare benefits from the state should they choose to stay at home. Seriously, tell us what lessons we could learn from a nation whose best known export is nuclear technology to rogue states and overpriced wine to the developed world? OK, enough already. You get the point. But one lesson we could absolutely learn from France is that things can―and will―often change if decision-making is left to the people and not to the government.
Last month, Nicolas Sarkozy, a left-leaning moderate (a conservative by French standards), was elected President of France. After decades of a failed socialist experiment, the French people have decided that it is time to look to other Democratic capitalist countries as a source of political and economic ideas and leadership. What is even more ironic, however, is that the French elected Sarkozy despite the strong anti-Bush and anti-American beliefs in the country. Despite their public scorn of what is often described in France and Europe as the “cowboy politics” of the United States, the French people consciously chose to vote for a leader who would be more… well like an American.
To wit, Sarkozy is an economic moderate who believes to some degree in free trade—the extent to which is open to debate―and greater economic freedoms for businesses. The International Herald Tribune noted in an article summarizing the election results that Sarkozy “plans to relax the 35-hour workweek, create more flexible work contracts and reduce the personal tax burden from 60 percent to 50 percent. As one of his first measures, he plans to establish minimum public service in times of strike, a move designed to limit the power of transport unions to hamper other reforms.”
But perhaps what is most interesting about Sarkozy is that he comes from the “anti” French establishment. For example, his education did not come from the hallowed halls of the Sorbonne or an elite French political training school, but rather far more humble origins. His family immigrated to France and he even had Jewish ancestors (the political elite in France have long espoused anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant thinking in large part because of the “Borg” assimilation philosophy of French Society). The fact that he was able to overcome obstacles which have traditionally been impossible to surmount in the highest level of French politics shows that the French people are most concerned with looking forward and not looking back.
If Sarkozy represents hope for a better life for the French people (i.e., lower unemployment, greater economic freedom and hope for immigrants and birthright citizens alike, etc.), then the current slate of U.S. presidential candidates represents fear. Both Republicans and Democratic candidates alike are retreating to populist camps that espouse protectionist economic policies and a lesser role for the U.S. on the world stage. If you listen closely to the rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle driving these policy ideas, you’ll realize that our candidates and politicians are appealing to our base concerns rather than the future.
Having hope is something that we need in the United States. Our wonderful nation was founded on it. But when we begin to trade hope for fear, looking inward rather than outward, we sacrifice a selfless future for a selfish present Perhaps the French could leach us a thing or two.