What’s left of France

Ezra Klein is having a bit of fun with Rudy Giuliani’s assertion that the U.S. “will be to the left of France” if the American electorate is “not careful” and doesn’t elect him:

We could elect Dennis Kucinich and 10 more Democratic senators and we wouldn’t get anywhere near France. France is a country where the rightwing reformer won’t touch the 35-hour workweek, where all sorts of powerful politicians call themselves socialists, where there’s over a month of legally mandated vacation and unlimited sick days.

Well, France is also a country where insulting the flag is a criminal offense, where the level of opposition to affirmative action would delight any card-carrying Republican, where about 20% of the student body attend religious schools (double the American percentage) and where capital income is much less heavily taxed than in the U.S. (see this pdf).

Not that I’m defending Giuliani’s idiotic statement, mind you. Especially one in which he equates caution with voting for his crazy self. But the idea that France is some sort of liberal wet dream doesn’t jibe well with the facts either.

For sure, French economic and social policies would generally be considered as strongly liberal from an American perspective – though you tend to get some surprises once you peruse the minutiae of fiscal policy. But in other areas, say immigration, trade or, yes, counterterrorism, it is not quite clear who’s to the left of whom between France and the United States. Indeed, the French electorate favor many policies that would be regarded as downright conservative or illiberal by American Democrats : to take one recent example, the New York Times editorial board certainly didn’t look too happy about the infamous French “DNA immigration bill”.

My larger point is that any attempt to pinpoint a politician, a political party or a whole country on a foreign political axis is usually worthless. And that the most sensible reply to a claim “that politician X of the Y country would be regarded as a leftist/fascist/weirdo in the Z country” is simply: “well, X isn’t trying to get elected in Z. So there”.

11 thoughts on “What’s left of France

  1. > 20% of the student body attend religious schools

    I think that this is due to the fact that private paying schools used to be runned by catholics. I’m not sure that much religious teaching is going on in most of these schools.

    But having only been to public schools, I might be wrong.

  2. France is a country in which having public authorities displaying their information in the language spoken by neighborhood inhabitants (as in, say, New York?) is odd to most people and, sadly, is currently on its way to become offensively illegal. Who’s at the left of whom?

  3. And frankly, there are plenty of people in France whose attitude towards guns, dogs, pickup trucks and general peasant grumpiness ought to delight any Republican.

    Trouble is, they all vote Communist!

  4. I don’t know if it’s simply attempting to pigeonhole a country in the context of a political tendancy as much as completely simplifying France and ignoring the incredibly complicated politics there (as with just about any country). Since we are on the French topic, they do have strong liberal tendancies on social issues, but when it comes to issues such as immigration, would be considered very conservative by American standards. Adding U.S. democratic senators wouldn’t make a country liberal, and I think the quoted comment shows a ignorance or simplification of another political structure that is troubling in a presidential candidate.

  5. I think your statistic about affirmative action needs some context. Polling Report has a list of recent polls related to race/ethnicity here: http://www.pollingreport.com/race.htm

    Ctrl+F (or whatever hotkey) and search the page for “affirmative action”.

    I’m not sure what to make of the religious schools, but that Americans are more religious than the French just seems like common sense to me. That same website says something like 75% of us (Americans) believe in angels, and 66% think that creationism is either “probably” or “definitely” true. But having never been to France, I could be wrong, I guess.

  6. Coujou: only been to public schools also but my understanding is that at least a minimal courseload (i.e. a few hours each week) of religious teaching is mandatory when you attend a private (religious) school. Other religious activities are optional. It is the case, at least, for the few private institutions whose websites I visited for confirmation.

    Stet: it *is* illegal, at least as far as the State administration is concerned.

    Alex: one could argue that they used to vote for the communists in some areas, I guess, but nowadays they are firmly right-wing. Communist vote has all but disappeared, except in some surburban bastions. Or did you have some specific example in mind?

    David: well, maybe they *dream* about it, but that’s because they don’t fully appreciate the complexity of European systems (or, at least, of the French system). Sure, American progressives would love to switch for a European-style welfare system. But I’m not certain they would readily accept the offer if it means *also* importing such aspects of the French institutional arrangements as nastier policies towards immigrants, more constrained civil liberties or a less open government (forgedabout the Freedom of Information Act, for instance). Not sure there is necessarily a tradeoff involved here but the French system is way more complex than Americans usually think it is.

    Scott: my point exactly.

    stnemmoc: now, Americans are much more religious than the French. No question about it.
    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2007_10/012351.php

    What I meant was that it doesn’t preclude the French system from presenting some features which don’t square well with the “Godless, atheist country” cliché. All the more so since the overwhelming majority of private schools receive public subsidies.

    As for affirmative action, it seems to me that polls confirm that a much higher proportion Americans support it in abstracto.

  7. Ah, your link also shows that American acceptance of gays is more closely aligned with Poland than it is with the Western European countries listed. Anyway, if your point was that Americans tend to oversimplify politics in Europe I’d have to agree. I’m pretty sure I do this all the time. But when we talk about France especially there are usually all kinds of wild allegations. (Only because you are traitors to freedom! or something…)

  8. Personal testimony : Went for a few years in a religious Catholic french school : The catechism accounted for one and a half hour of the week and -sometime- (4 time a year perhaps) there may be a ceremony where the class attended. To say the least it’s not overwhelming.

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