Real Americans don't speak French

2012-01-20 11:45
Washington - Here we go again.

It's an American election year which means a season to bash France, Europe and China as well as drawing attention to un-American skills by presidential hopefuls. Such as speaking in foreign tongues.

Mastering foreign languages is considered an asset in most parts of the world but clearly not in the United States, a fact highlighted by attack ads in the race for the nomination of a Republican candidate to run against President Barack Obama next November.

One television clip mocked Mitt Romney, the present front runner, for speaking French. Another featured Jon Huntsman, who dropped out of the contest this week, and suggested that his fluency in Mandarin mean that he subscribed to Chinese rather than American values.

Attempts to exploit ignorance, prejudice and xenophobia are nothing new in American election campaigns but even by their standards, the Huntsman ad stood out.

Created by supporters of rival candidate Ron Paul, the 72-second ad is entitled The Manchurian Candidate, after a novel (and movie) about the son of a prominent political family who is brainwashed by Communists.

Anti-French sentiment

The attack on Romney harked back to the presidential elections of 2004, when Republicans portrayed Democratic contender John Kerry as an out-of-touch elitist who not only spoke French fluently but also looked French.

In an oft-repeated description, coined by a Wall Street Journal commentator, Kerry was called "a haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat".

Romney is a former Massachusetts governor. So far, no-one has accused him of looking French but the ad notes that "just like John Kerry, he speaks French".

Both in the 2004 campaign and now, Republicans stirred anti-French resentment, though for different reasons. Eight years ago, it was about the French government's refusal to back the US war on Iraq. Now, both France and Europe have become dirty words in the Republican dictionary because they are portrayed as a socialist threat to the global economy.

Europe-bashing is part of the stump speech of every candidate for the Republican nomination. Romney is the most consistent basher, perhaps to make up for the perceived stain of speaking French and having lived in France as an unsuccessful missionary for the Mormon church.

European inspiration

He misses few opportunities for warning that President Obama wants to turn the United States into a "European-style welfare state". That would, in his words, "poison the very spirit of America".

Obama, according to Romney, "takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe and has a European social Democratic vision". Ron Paul takes the idea a step further: He wants to pull out US troops stationed in Germany in order to stop "subsidising" a "socialist" country. Republican stump speeches combine to a portrait of Europe as a collection of enterprise-stifling losers.

This is seeing Europe through a severely distorted lens, notwithstanding the European Union's current sovereign debt crisis and prolonged political problems to solve it.

Europe-bashers fail to mention that Europe is home to more of the world's largest companies than the United States (179 to 140) and ranks higher on important quality-of-life indexes than the United States, from income inequality and access to healthcare to life expectancy, infant mortality and poverty levels.

(Last October, the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think tank, published a study that examined such indicators in 31 of the 34 countries of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It ranked the United States 23rd in providing healthcare and 20th on access to education.)

Pointing out such data is not fashionable at a time when America's persistent high unemployment makes it tempting to look for scapegoats, foreign and domestic. But there are exceptions.

German example

Nicholas Kristof, the liberal New York Times columnist, wrote from Paris this week that "the basic notion of Europe as a failure is a dangerous misconception". And in Washington, Elisabeth Jacobs, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a respected think tank, even held out Germany as an example Americans might do well to study and follow.

The global recession, she wrote in a paper on Maintaining Employment in a Difficult Economy, had much less drastic effects on Germany workers than on American workers.

A key reason: Labour market policies that encourage business to pursue long-term objectives in contrast to the traditional US focus on short-term gains. That may not be a model that best serves the US economy and American workers in competitive global markets, according to Jacobs.

Can such arguments dent the rigid views of Republican standard bearers? Unlikely. The talking points seem fixed. Romney: "I don't think Europe is working in Europe. I know it won't work here."

-    Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  mitt romney  |  us  |  us elections 2012

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