No Comment — June 13, 2007, 10:27 am

French Lessons

Only a short while back, Senator Majority Leader Trent Lott was denigrating “French socialists” and their influence. And Congressman Bob Ney was forcing the House cafeteria to change “french fries” to “freedom fries” on its menu. In the meantime, of course, Trent Lott, while retaining his Pampadour-style coiffure, had his stumble over the racist legacy of Strom Thurmond and lost his leadership post, and Bob Ney did much worse, losing his seat in Congress and getting taxpayer-paid accommodations in a Federal Correctional Institution.

But their sense of history was off. After all, any good historian of the Republican Party knows that of all U.S. political parties, none has stronger ties to the French (ask Jean-Charles Frémont, the party’s founder, from ancient stock of the elegant Île de France town of St Germain-en-Laye). And any Frenchman can tell you that pommes frites come from Belgium, not France. On a more serious level, though, the GOP’s selection of the French as a whipping boy could not have been more poorly advised. They were wishing to push an agenda of a strong and unitary executive, a potent national security state, and the Western model for that is, of course, France. Indeed, France has just made its choice with a stark division between left and right. No mistaking how the French went. It was right.

And now Newt Gingrich recognizes that the French experience presents a valuable lesson for the ailing GOP. Writing in the Financial Times he says:

It is time for some strong medicine for American conservatives and it does not get any stronger then this: if Republicans are going to have any chance of victory in 2008, they need to learn a thing or two from the French. That’s right. The French.

For Republicans in Washington, the election of Nicolas Sarkozy is significant not because he is a conservative but because he was a part of a deeply unpopular incumbent government. For those who are willing to learn, Mr Sarkozy’s win shows that it is possible to produce a decisive national decision in favour of more conservative reform when voters are faced with a choice between ideological failure on the left and bold solutions and bold leadership from a newly redefined right…

Here is where American Republicans really need to pay attention. In France, voting for change meant voting for the party in office, but not the personality in office. And voting to keep the old order meant voting for the opposition, not for the incumbent party.

If Republicans in the US hope to win the presidency next year, they had better find a candidate who, like Mr Sarkozy, is prepared to stand for very bold, very dramatic and very systematic change. Not only that, but they had better make the case that the leftwing Democrat likely to be nominated represents the failed status quo: the bureaucracies that are failing, the social policies that are failing, the high tax policies that are failing and the weakness around the world that has failed so badly in protecting the US.

Newt of course speaks fluent French and Spanish, and launched his career as an academic. He wrote a brilliant dissertation on the brutal Belgian exploitation of the Congo and he taught at Kennesaw State University in suburban north Atlanta. On the other hand, Newt the politician is something of a crass brute. But if all passes as I expect, Newt will soon have occasion to make use of his French, and perhaps quote us a bit of Talleyrand, “Ceux qui n’ont pas connu l’ancien régime ne pourront jamais savoir ce qu’était la douceur de vivre.” (“Those who never knew the ancient régime will never know how sweet was the life of those under it.”) For this to apply to the age of Bush, the times to come will have to be very bleak indeed. But as for Newt, he is the Republican Talleyrand, no doubt about it, and sure to emerge in a new political form. Newt, you see, has done his French lessons.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Season 5 of Louie (FX), Louie is a new kind of superhero. Like Wonder Woman, the canonical superhero he most resembles, Louie’s distinctive superpower is love.”
Illustration by Demetrios Psillos
Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.

In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today