France and the United States: The Story of Five Amazing Parallels
Given their mutual dislike, the two “grand nations” are united in pursuing the wrong priorities.
- The two nations that inspired the world with their paths in the 1770s and 1780s can no longer rely on that magic.
- The core narrative of “grand nations” does not lend itself to being reinvented.
- Both France and the US have royalist fantasies.
- France and the US suffer from extreme elitism.
- To rejuvenate, the French or American political classes have to declare the bankruptcy of their past ways.
- The only times the U.S. and French political systems seem to be united is when intervening abroad.
- France and the US have a burgeoning underclass, but care only about education elites.
- In France and US, social issues take precedence over economics ones, creating a strange set of priorities.
France is about the last country that most Americans would ever want to be compared to. And the United States is about the last country most French would tolerate being compared to.
And yet, the two countries share many parallels. This has been true since each emerged as a competing source point of “universal” (Western) liberal democratic values in the late 18th century.
Many of these parallels underlie the deep structural crisis which both countries face. I count five that really matter.
The first parallel is the ill-fated belief in the omnipotent powers of the presidential system. True, Francois Hollande is doing his utmost to disabuse his fellow citizens of that notion. Still, the French continue to love the idea of having a “king.”
Their collective hope is that this one person can somehow magically fix things for the people, preferably by decree. This penchant for royalism is accompanied by democratic pretenses. The underlying belief is this: The more we protest and resist, the more benefits we can expect.
The Americans, originally born out of an anti-royalist impulse, curiously regret nothing more than not having a king. For all the democratic pretensions of the United States, they share with the French a deep-rooted desire to imagine their president as king. Just watch the decorum of the White House and the length of the presidential motorcade.
Relying on the idea of an omnipotent president is not only profoundly anti-democratic. It is also extremely disempowering. Worse, it hollows out the can-do spirit that is necessary at the popular level to support any meaningful reforms.
In the end, all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Elysée and the White House prove fatal to achieving real results in the world of politics where the lofty aspirations hit the rubber of reality.
The French know full well that they only pretend that their president is omnipotent. In exchange, their president pretends that he – yes, so far always a he – can protect them. Magically, he is able to keep all the evils of the world outside their nation’s borders from affecting them in their daily lives. It’s much the same in the United States, including a steadfast reliance on a him, not a her.
And in both countries, a complete illusion, if not delusion still reigns supreme. The United States and France share an expectation that it is the world that has to change, rather than their own country.
The second amazing parallel is that both countries suffer more than most other large economies from extreme elitism. In France, the upper crust has long been far removed from the rest of the people. Yes, they live among them – but, in a very real sense, are always above them.
Moreover, the French elite has always managed to arrange its own business affairs quite well, irrespective of how the national economy does. That is also the case now, as the economy has trouble bouncing back.
The distance between the 1% and the rest is a newer phenomenon in the United States, although there had been an earlier such episode during the 1890s.
The period between the Civil War and the New Deal, dubbed the “Gilded Age” by none other than Mark Twain, was America’s most pronounced age of inequality. The grand mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, are testimonies to the extreme wealth wrought by the immense growth of industry.
The one big difference between France and the United States now is that, in the latter, elites have lost any sense of self-discipline. That is largely the result of the ever-pliable politicians in the U.S. Congress. Their main interest is to serve their financial sponsors at all times.
In France, where the bite of tax policy vis-à-vis the rich is at the other extreme, the separation from the country plays out in a different, more physical fashion. About half of the offspring of the country’s upper crust have literally jumped ship. They are pursuing their lives and careers outside France, often in the UK/London.
3. Standstill at home and action abroad
Let us now turn to a more pedestrian matter, the management of the national economy. For the third amazing parallel is that, at least under their respective current governments, both countries operate on the basis of worshipping standstill, or stasis. For all the huffing and puffing, very little gets actually accomplished. Both political camps in either country mostly excel at blocking each other.
For all the inertia at home, curiously the only times the U.S. and French political systems seem to be united across the aisle is when the cause is intervening abroad, preferably clandestinely.
These Franco-American adventures have not amounted to anything positive in Asia in the decades after World War II. One has to doubt that interventionism in Africa will lead to much.
One thing is for sure: It does nothing to fix the countries’ domestic economies. In the end, the implied lack of accepting any need to undertake true structural reforms in France and the United States really speaks for itself.
The fourth parallel concerns the fate of potential future underclasses. France and the United States both suffer from a failed education strategy.
They put far too much emphasis on moving young people massively into university. There was a very abstract and unreal expectation that this move, once decreed and widely implemented, would let the economy rise and create jobs aplenty. It hasn’t worked out that way.
Meanwhile, the all-important middle ground, a deeply resourced job training system, preferably involving both continued theoretical education and the attainment of workplace skills, was left unaddressed. However, without a state-of-the-art apprenticeship system, it is very hard to provide youths with a future oriented perspective and jobs.
5. Misguided Priorities
The final parallel involves the curious interplay of social and economic debates. In both countries, the debate over gay marriage currently plays a big role on the public stage. In France, the issue has sadly turned into the rallying cry of right-wingers.
In the United States, it is a cause of happiness and achievement among what goes for left-of-center forces there. As important as it is as a civil rights issue for a small but vibrant part of the population, the much more important need to undertake structural reforms to the economy not only goes unmet, but unaddressed. Something is definitely out of proportion here.
What can the two grand nations do? Getting out of the trouble they are in won’t be easy.
The core narrative of “grand nations” does not lend itself to being reinvented. Past arrogance and a continuous disregard for what has always been considered a bunch of “little problems” do have significant consequences.
Any recalibration of the French and American political formula would involve the political classes in both countries declaring the bankruptcy of their past ways, messages and policies. Faced with such a harsh choice, the human inclination is to pray and hope that the strategy of muddling through will somehow work in the end.
That is a dangerous strategy. If the magic turnaround does not come to pass – and the odds are it won’t – then the current time period only means further delay and a later arrival of true improvements.
As it stands, the two nations that greatly inspired the world with their paths in the 1770s and 1780s, respectively, can no longer rely on that magic. After all, it happened a quarter of a millennium ago. Unrevised, they are definitely not a bridge to the 21st century and beyond.
This essay was updated in August 2015 in response to a reader comment.