Sunday, April 10, 2005

A Simple Illustration

Only when one has dwelled as an expatriate in France for many years (and lived as a French person - speaking French at home, fully integrated into the French culture - rather than being the proverbial 'American in Paris') can one measure and illuminate the gaps separating America and France. For example, it is very difficult, if not well-nigh impossible on a given day, to discuss American domestic politics profitably, including government spending and taxes, with Americans who live in the USA but have never lived in Europe.

Sisley Huddleston, in his Paris Salons Cafes, Studios. Being Social, Artistic and Literary Memories published in 1928, put it quite neatly:

... there are exiles - expatriates as they prefer to call themselves - in Paris who know more about the United States, about Ireland, about England, than anybody who lives in these countries. They can see these lands with detachment. Moreover, they see fresh images, they can spread new colours on their palette, they see even their compatriots around them in a clearer light, and they contrast them and their manners with the French and their manners. They are no longer insular …

Take a look at what is generally termed 'the political spectrum'. When people - whatever their motivation - resort to labels such as 'conservative' and 'liberal', it would certainly be a good idea to define the terms. Rarely does one see the USA vs. Europe political spectra defined - neither in books nor the media. Robert Kagan (he of 'Old Europe vs. New Europe') didn't pay enough attention to it. For years one has seen and heard some people refer to the fact that 'Europe is more socially oriented than the USA', of course, and others who assert 'The USA is more capitalistic than Europe, so we're more dynamic'. People in the USA can be heard loudly condemning 'rampant socialized medicine in Europe', while people in France are wont to decry the 'dog-eat-dog social Darwinism in the USA'.

What must be understood and factored into any discussion about 'the USA' and 'France' (and, to some extent, 'Europe') is just how different the political spectra - and hence the resultant politics - are. There are other issues, too: simple definitions. In the USA, for example a 'liberal' means 'on the left', whereas in Europe, a 'liberal' generally signifies 'a proponent of laissez-faire economics rather than state planning'. Too, one can suppose that 'the people' want basically the same things from life in the USA and Europe, although they do not expect the identical things from their government.

A simple example should suffice to put the magnitude of the difference into perspective. Don't confuse 'simple' with 'simplistic': it's not quite the same. (smile)

Take a ruler. Your usual footlong ruler, running from 0 to 12 inches. Put the ruler on the table in front of you. Horizontally. This ruler represent the 'political spectrum'. Now, draw this ruler on a sheet of 8x10 paper, landscape format, and write on the sheet in front of you as you go along. Use different colored pens/pencils if required . Three caveats before beginning:

1) It's hard to numerize political ideas and politicians (with questions on the order of "If Bush is 'conservative', how much more 'conservative' is DeLay, on a scale of 1 to 5 ?"). What is important is the big picture, not attributing a numeric value to every political philosophy, theory and politician in the public arena, as some of the American 'Congress watchers' do for politicians and their votes in the House or Senate.

2) A given individual's 'political opinion' or 'political dogma' is not monolithic. So the idea that, say, someone can be 'conservative fiscally' but 'socially oriented' is tough to quantify on any kind of numeric scale.

3) Only 'mainstream' political people/ideas are examined here. There are extremists on the right and on the left, but here a ballpark numeric value is being attributed to 'mainstream' only, for illustrative purposes.

To start off, take two prominent US 'political' or 'media-political' figures. Say, on the 'left', Michael Moore. Say, on the 'right', Rush Limbaugh.

Look at the ruler on the sheet of paper in front of you. Put a flag with Limbaugh's name at 11, and put a flag with Moore at 7, on the top edge of the ruler. There is the American political spectrum, the range from left to right, from 7 to 11 (with room between 11 and 12 for David Duke or Farrakhan types).

France ? Use Jean-Marie Le Pen - in spite of his obnoxious racist and anti-Semitic pronouncements to garner support - as the 'rightist' and Arlette Laguiller as the 'leftist'. On the bottom edge of the ruler, put a flag at 9, for the right border (Le Pen). Put a flag at ... 2 for the left border (Laguiller).

Three conclusions jump out immediately from the page. First: the political spectrum is wider here in France: 7 units, compared to 4 in the USA. (This is generally true in what Rummy called 'Old Europe'). Note that 'wider' doesn't necessarily mean 'better', of course. Second: the spectrum from 2 to 7 doesn't really exist in the USA (in the 'mainstream' !) . Third: there is not a whole lot of overlap between the two spectra: just from 7 to 9.

To continue the exercise, add a few other entities to the your nascent 'political spectrum ruler on paper'. Keeping it simple ... US Republican Party ? Span it from 9 to 11. US Democrats ? From 7 to 9.5. Dubya ? 10.5, say. The Governator ? 9, maybe. John Kerry ? 8.5, say. The current French government (the 'Raffarin' government: described as 'rightist' or 'center right)' ? Put it at 7.5. The French Socialist Party ? Span it from 3.5 to 5. French Communist Party ? Put it at 2.5 to 3.5. Jacques Chirac, the French President ? 6.0, or perhaps 6.5.

Still seen from here in Paris, remember ... where do some of the mainstream press/media fall on the rapidly-becoming-difficult-to-read spectrum ? If Fox is at 11 and the Wall Street Journalat 10, the New York Times is at about 8.. The major French papers ? Le Figaro (very definitely on the 'right') at 8.5, Le Monde ('center-left') at 6 and Libération ('left') at, say, 4. French TV news ? Private TV stations: from 5 to 7. State TV and radio stations ? They vary in accordance with the party in power but their general 'social position' can be called 'sixish'.

Note that the foregoing is basically about France. There are currently twenty-five countries in the European Union, and each has its own political traditions: left, right, and center.

Before criticizing too quickly and too loudly ... remember this is an attempt at simple illustration, may be imperfect and can undoubtedly be improved. Nevertheless, it can be recalled with profit when odious comparisons about 'the USA and France'or 'the US and Europe' are made by those with an axe to grind and a political or philosophical agenda to impose.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger PTA Mom said...

L'Amerloque, I'm so glad to see you've started your own blog. Thank you for presenting a very thought provoking post! I think as an American expat in France that it is necessary to be even "more American" over here because you have to explain, defend or critize actions of the American government when asked the invariable questions.

10:41 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Auntie M !

L'Amerloque, I'm so glad to see you've started your own blog.

Actually one of the main reasons was that Jason Stone over at NYC à Paris closed down his blog about Paris when he went back to the USA. It acted as a great salon for exchanges of opinion !

Thank you for presenting a very thought provoking post!

Thank you for visiting !

I think as an American expat in France that it is necessary to be even "more American" over here because you have to explain, defend or critcize actions of the American government when asked the invariable questions.

I'm not sure it's as much a question of being "more American" as it is of being "a more aware American". (smile) Living overseas gives us expats a different perspective, one which is constantly tempered by what we see, hear and live on a daily basis. You're absolutely right about the invariable questions, of course: they just keep coming and coming .


7:17 AM  

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