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.