“The American model” plays a big role in European domestic economic debates, with business school types convinced that the streets really are paved with gold in the land of Ronald Reagan, and the left certain that modern America is a kind of Dickensian inferno. The leading candidates in France’s presidential election (held, in two rounds, on April 22 and May 6) have followed this pattern in their rhetoric, with conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal respectively praising and criticizing the US economy.
At other times in history, however, these roles were reversed. During the American Civil War, French liberals supported the Union, while monarchists around Europe were drooling at the possible demise of the American experiment. Civil War historian James McPherson, in an essay on European responses to the conflict, quotes French reformer Edgar Quinet’s 1862 statement that Napoleon III wanted to “destroy democracy in the United States…because in order for Napoleonic ideas to succeed, it is absolutely indispensable that this vast republic disappear from the face of the earth.”
Today, the transatlantic discussion is not about “Napoleonic ideas” but rather about the viability of the welfare state in an era of globalization. And just as European republicans of the nineteenth century depended on the success of the American experiment in democracy, so today American progressives would be enormously helped if Europe can get social justice and globalization right. Thus, while the French are debating the American model, Americans should be taking a look at what’s happening to the French one.
It’s all too easy to see Europe as a kind of welfare-state Alamo, desperately trying to hold on to the gains workers and the middle class made during the twentieth century. European leaders’ rhetoric justifies that impression. However, the reality is much more complicated. As columnist Jean-Louis Andreani argued recently in Le Monde, EU governments, “including that of France, are supporting, or at least permitting, a policy that resists on principle anything that’s public in favor of whatever is private. But this ideological shift is never admitted–or submitted to a clear decision by voters.” It’s like a Reagan revolution without a Reagan.
Nicolas Sarkozy is not a European Reagan, but some of his plans seem drawn from the Republican playbook. He proposes, for instance, a cut in the estate tax and the abolition of a surcharge on large fortunes. He also proposes other tax cuts, which he promises will put more money in the average person’s pocket–paid for in part by not replacing half of all retiring civil service workers. You can almost hear him saying, “It’s not the government’s money–it’s your money!” In addition, the at-will employment system the government tried to begin installing last year (but had to retract in the face of public protest) remains a centerpiece of Sarkozy’s program. This is all part of his stated goal of bringing what he describes approvingly as Anglo-Saxon flexibility to France, a project that makes him the darling of the business associations even as his law-and-order image allows him simultaneously to cull votes from the populist far right.