Americans would do well to drop the Euro-snobbery

Sitting here in Paris, where I am spending a month as a visiting professor at the Université Paris 8, Institut Français de Géopolitique, I’m struck by how, once again, American presidential candidates are denigrating their opponents simply by calling them “French” or “European.”

Americans have long been suspicious of Old World Europe. It is, perhaps, a sentiment that dates back to the Revolution, despite the fact that the French saved our bacon in the climactic battle at Yorktown in that war. In the early days, it was Britain that was the target of animosity from the precursors of today’s Democrats — the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, who accused the Federalists (precursors of today’s Republicans) of being too cozy with the Empire. In the contemporary era, it’s the Republicans who have taken the offensive by tying the Democrats to France and the rest of Europe.

The heat got turned up when the Bush administration resented strong French opposition to the Iraq War, as compared to the full support it got from British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In 2004, Republican strategists found that they could portray Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry as effete and French-like. To add to the portrait, his wife spoke in several languages at the Democratic National Convention, revealing a suspect air of cosmopolitanism. (Actually, even I thought that was a bit on the pretentious side.) Now, Newt Gingrich has taken on his fellow Republican Mitt Romney by pointing out that, like Kerry, Romney actually speaks French. Mon dieu! Meanwhile, for his part, Romney has been busy castigating President Barack Obama for trying to turn America into a European-style “entitlement state.”  

Such parochialism prevents us from learning what we really need to know about Europe, especially in the global economic arena, where we are inextricably interconnected. The fact is, what happens in Europe’s economy won’t stay in Europe. Many believe that the nascent economic recovery in America can only be sustained if Europe gets its act together and saves its economic alliance. Right now, presidential candidates need to talk knowledgeably about Europe’s economic crisis rather than encouraging us to be ignorant on the subject.

How linked we are was brought home just last week, when the rating firm Standard & Poor’s (S&P) did to France what it had done to the United States last August — lowered its credit rating from AAA to AA+.

In August, the S&P evaluation was shown by the White House to be off by an accounting error of a couple of trillion dollars, but instead of changing its rating, S&P stuck it to the United States anyway. In the aftermath of the downgrade, worldwide investors sought safety in U.S. Treasury bonds, thereby giving the lie to the rationale for the downgrade in the first place.

Now it’s Europe’s turn. Last week, S&P downgraded several European nations, including France, even as these nations are struggling to raise the capital to solve the euro zone’s problems. While some economists think these downgrades are more justified than what the S&P did to the United States, their timing is particularly unfortunate for nations trying to go into the bond market to support their weaker members.

On both sides of the ocean, we might wonder why private rating agencies are in a position to direct the fate of democratically elected governments — on both the left and the right. The downgrades hurt the Democratic president Obama but also the center-right French president Nicolas Sarkozy. 

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Romney has been dismissing Europe as an entitlement society. Indeed, compared to the United States, especially since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the European safety net has been much deeper and stronger than ours. Just the other day, I was explaining to my somewhat incredulous graduate student class that in the United States, a lot more than 40 million people have no health insurance coverage at all, and that only the recent health care law will prevent insurance companies from refusing coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. I noted that because of the new law, young people can stay on their parents’ policies until the age of 26.

In France, private doctors operate and negotiate as a group with the government for the rates of care. It is not the government-run program of the U.K. and Canada, and it has features we might emulate.

Virtually everyone is covered for health care, students benefit from a specific coverage plan, and insurance companies only sell supplemental policies for those who want “gold-plated” coverage. Pharmaceutical drugs are available at low cost, and the vital ones are fully reimbursed.

Are Americans supposed to stay ignorant about this public-private partnership, which seems to be working here, simply because we might not want to seem “European”?

European nations, too, have for the last several decades debated, often in raging terms, the cost of their safety nets. It is not only American voters who worry about taxes. As Nicholas Kristof noted in The New York Times last week, Europe is a lot more conservative than American stereotypes suggest. Throughout Europe, left and right governments have come in and out of power; austerity measures have been adopted and then relaxed and then readopted. In France, for example, the highly rated health care system is getting more and more expensive to maintain, and French voters and leaders have to confront whether to cut services, raise taxes, or increase citizen co-pays.

In other words, Europe’s politics have more in common with ours than we might imagine. While the center of political gravity throughout Europe tends to be more to the left than in the United States, the big questions of austerity versus growth and how to pay for social services are fundamental on both sides of the ocean. So, with a presidential election coming up in the United States this year, I hope our candidates will do better than simply accuse one another of actually knowing something about that big continent “over there.” We need to know everything we possibly can as we try to work our way out of the economic and social challenges we all face.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton, will become the executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, in February.