Who would have thought it? While at times pugnacious, at others scholarly and thoughtful, Pat Buchanan could always be defined as 100% American. Yet the Nixon advisor, the maverick presidential candidate, the sage commentator and respected conservative author has become French; and just as the iconic French actor Gérard Depardieu takes Russian citizenship and half of the Paris Bourse flees to London. Talk about bad timing. As for his heartbroken fans, it’s like going to a Fourth of July picnic and being fed fois gras.
In a recent column on why Reagan Democrats deserted the Republican Party, Mr. Buchanan adopts French culture, French values, French policies and (how it pains me to write this) la philosophie de la France. It’s as if Captain America went into the telephone booth and emerged as Jean Paul Sartre covered in cigarette ash or as Prime Minister François Hollande couvert dans sa propre absurdité. It’s as unexpected and upsetting as thoughts of J. Edgar Hoover in his ballerina tutu.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being French, I suppose; many people are born that way. And for all we know Mr. Buchanan may have suppressed a lifelong French, um, orientation. You know; the secret locker of vin ordinaire, the beret Basque that he only wears alone with his mistress, the midnight cheese-attacks, the Edith Piaf albums and the rubber baguette. But now he has come out of the Francophilic closet, so to speak, embracing culture and politics that are anything but (to use a French epithet) Anglo Saxon. To translate the French expression, “Sacred Blue!”
His main point, hardly a new one, is that globalisation has destroyed blue-collar American families, strengthened and enriched the Yellow Peril, and benefitted only our corporate plutocrats. He longs for a Wold War Two America in which the car-makers sat down with FDR’s Brains Trust, produced tanks and planes, and cold-cocked what Archie Bunker called the “Krauts, Dagoes and Japs.” It sounds American, particularly for nostalgic old folk, but it is utterly French. Pat’s still Red, White and Blue, but he’s traded Old Glory for Le Tricolor.
The French have always thought themselves a nation apart; distaining other countries while believing that the universal rules do not apply to them. While France shares the woes of the Eurozone and, to some extent the world, it has a whole other layer of difficulties of its own making. A columnist for the Daily Telegraph writes:
A new report on French competitiveness by Ernst & Young entitled “Last Chance” confirmed the worst fears of business leaders, concluding that the country is being left behind as foreign investment migrates to Germany and Britain.
The number of new industrial plants created by foreigners fell 25pc last year, and new job creation fell 53pc, with the emerging BRICS powers avoiding the country altogether. Ernst & Young said France’s anti-market body language had become almost “repulsive” for outside investors, not helped by a series of bitter labour disputes.
“France is drifting away. Like a receding wave, it is retreating little by little from the global economy, imperceptibly in the past, but visibly so today,” said Jean-Pierre Letartre, Ernst & Young’s chief in France.
The reasons look like recent tax increases, historic cultural and governmental hostility to small enterprise and start-up firms, protecting old inefficient jobs at the expense of dynamic new ones, stultifying bureaucracy, government captured by vested interests, etc. But the underlying reason is nostalgic arrogance, a refusal to change. “Poof!” say the French dismissively; the rules of the economic universe are only made for foreign canaille, for drudges like le petit peuple jaune, le Biftek, le Boche and the (ghastly) Américains: “Have some more wine and cheese, Marianne, and since the whole country is on strike today, voulez vous coucher avec moi?”
So investors flee and the French economy worsens. A century ago they produced nearly all of what they consumed but no longer; do French people wish to live without imported computers and modern hospital equipment and the former luxuries that are now second nature? Non! Are they prepared to muck in with the rest of the planet? Non! Are they getting their butts kicked as the world passes them by? Um…oui…
Meanwhile, Monsieur Buchanan, as we must call him now, has the same arrogant nostalgia as the French, pleading for an economic past already gone; ignoring that America spread freedom so that others could prosper too. Like it or not, they compete to sell us goods. And while American technology and craftsmanship still repatriate jobs across whole sectors, and America is still by far the favoured destination for foreign investment, it’s no longer a cozy self-sufficient little universe so nostalgique to Frenchmen such as Pat.
We see how far le bon commentateur is prepared to go, in order to restore the 1940s of his childhood and build an economic Fortress America similar to what is failing in France. He complains:
Under the rules of globalization, U.S. corporations could, without penalty or opprobrium, shut their factories, lay off their U.S. workers, erect new plants in Asia, produce their goods there, and bring them back free of any tariff to sell to consumers and kill the U.S. companies that elected to stay loyal to the U.S.A.
Note his words “without penalty or opprobrium.” How disdainful of private property! How delightfully French! Opprobrium recalls French trade unionists burning foreign franchise restaurants; penalty presumably means fines for corporations, and their millions of American share-owners including blue-collar pension plans, just for the temerity of producing the best possible products at the lowest possible cost.
On one hand, Jacobin mobs storming the corporate Bastille, on the other King Louis’ bureaucrats micro-managing French business, French investors and French consumers all for Le Gloire–the glory of the state. The French like this sort of thing, which rankles the Anglosphere and smacks to us of moral turpitude: as Mark Twain remarked, “A Frenchman’s home is where another man’s wife is.” Another man’s bank account too.
Americans have three sound reasons for not becoming French (explaining why Americans can still just about afford to take holidays there). First is five centuries or so of tradition encouraging relatively unfettered trade and enterprise, condensed brilliantly into America’s founding documents. The second is experience: while de Tocqueville attributes American wealth partly to vast lands and natural resources, and lacking contiguous borders with capably hostile neighbours, relatively free markets generated historically unequalled wealth (in America and Britain) from the Jefferson Era until recently.
In both cases Monsieur Buchanan, a former conservative, longs to dump American tradition and revel in the ideological hope of restoring the world of his lost childhood. It is charming, just as our French friends cherish dreams of the world learning their language again and returning to genuflect in the Bourbon Court. Pat’s off the American bourbon and onto Les Bourbons.
Thirdly, as we just read, the world is changing, investors move, businesses adapt. Not notre cher Monsieur Buchanan. Come on, sir! What price would you pay for a time-machine that still won’t work?
If America is to retain her economic strength, will it most likely be done by buccaneer entrepreneurship, or by government building barriers such as Chinese Great Walls and Wilhelmine Siegfried Lines? Are there problems to be solved beyond the intractably lazy, the dim or ill-educated, and the willing and industrious but uncompetitive? Sure. But does it help to turn French? That would require an even bigger bureaucracy, syndicalism between government and trade unions and dog-collared management—led by the guys running Obamacare—plus even higher taxes. Then tariffs, making what we buy now unaffordable, while foreign retaliation would slash our exports: this nostalgic protectionism, under the Depression-era Smoot-Hawley Act, crippled us for about a decade. Then, if we really went French, we’d have to abandon soap and ask our ladies to stop shaving their underarms.
We can, and maybe should, write it off as a decent old guy complaining, rather as Grandpa Simpson grumps that tomatoes tasted better when he was a kid. Pat usually hates intrusive government and maybe does not mean all that he says and implies. We should probably fetch him a hotdog off the grille and a cold beer so he doesn’t have to get up from his deckchair.
And maybe if Mark Twain was right, and “there is nothing lower than the human race except the French,” I ought to retract my canard, for Mister Buchanan has some superhuman virtues along with normal strengths and foibles.
But the dear old guy has somewhat lost the plot.
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