In a French presidential campaign, calling your opponent an “ultra liberal” is an easy and effective attack. It is in the American Republican primaries as well, with a different meaning altogether.
The French use it to describe a supporter of unfettered capitalism, or a believer in “Anglo-Saxon” values. For Republicans, it’s a way of speaking about people like, well, me and my 65 million fellow French countrymen.
Traveling this week with U.S. journalists at a community center in central New Hampshire, where presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich addressed a few dozen senior citizens, I took his ultimate insult a bit personally. The threat facing American citizens, it seems, is becoming like the French, the subject of a “European bureaucratic socialist model.”
“In America, you are always a citizen and the government is always your server,” Gingrich told the people of Plymouth. “In the European model, you’re merely a subject. The government is the center of power, and you are the servant.”
Mitt Romney, leading in opinion polls in New Hampshire’s premiere Republican primary election Jan. 10, said in a debate of his party’s candidates yesterday that President Barack Obama “wants us to turn into a European-styled welfare state.”
Yes, we do think differently. As a French government official joked privately when I left on my New Hampshire mission, Republican candidates make supporters of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose party is considered right wing in France, feel like they could find some political space in the U.S. to the left of Obama.
If it’s any comfort to Gingrich, though, French servants are becoming more American. French voters are embracing primary elections, a custom adopted by the two major political parties in their 2007 campaign. Last October, Socialists attracted almost 3 million voters by opening the vote to non-party members.
‘Show a l’americaine’
Of course, we are a small player. To the French, the U.S. primaries are a big “show a l’americaine:” a lot of money, a lot of ads, a lot of media coverage for what feels more like the actual presidential election than a step in the process.
Candidates have wives with scarily perfect hairdos standing next to them and shaking hands after speeches like they are the parents of the bride. I now know about Jon Huntsman Jr.’s seven children, including an adopted Chinese daughter whom he calls his senior foreign policy adviser.
All the talk of family is as exotic as it gets for me. In France, politicians’ families are rarely seen campaigning. Sarkozy’s then-wife didn’t accompany him to vote in the second round of the 2007 election.
Yet for all the smartphones and frantic e-mailing of these primaries, this is one of the rare moments since living in this country when I have felt the weight of its history.
Town Hall Experience
I’ve followed French candidates to visit factories or speak with students. I’ve attended large political rallies where Francois Bayrou, the third man of the 2007 race, recited poetry to 15,000 in a concert hall.
Town hall meetings in the U.S. are a different experience. Standing with 80 locals under the wooden roof of a welcome center in the town of Lancaster, New Hampshire -- and ignoring a dozen cameras -- I could imagine for a moment what this country was like 200 years ago.
There is something moving to see citizens doing their due diligence, braving temperatures close to zero (Fahrenheit, of course) or joining a meeting in the middle of the day to get to hear a candidate.
Having lived a decade in Paris after being raised in the French Alps, I find it heartening to see states like New Hampshire in the spotlight with special access to candidates once every four years thanks to the timing of the contests.
I come from a centralized country, where we all vote on the same day, which is why you will never see Sarkozy or his Socialist rival, Francois Hollande, invest special effort in the small towns of Brittany or Normandy.
Reporters I met here on the campaign trail know the candidates’ speeches so well they could probably fill in for them. That’s probably why I was the only one raising eyebrows when Gingrich said Iran may require the use of military force or when he called Obama the president of food stamps.
It also felt very foreign to hear Gingrich speak about the special rights God gave American citizens. God is a banned word in French politics. In a country that prides itself for its secularity, mentioning religious values won’t take you very far.
That explains why most French people watch the Republican primaries like a reality show happening on another planet.
As for the candidates’ economic platforms, I knew what to expect so I was just glad I didn’t happen to sit in a meeting where Europe was bashed for its debt crisis on top of its bureaucratic decadence.
I can’t complain, overall.
Being French may have not been an asset to approach candidates, yet it didn’t hurt my reporting with voters. All were quite friendly, in typical American fashion. My only rough encounters have been with candidates’ spokesmen or with that journalist who shouted at me for using a power outlet for my BlackBerry that he had his eye on.
I also tried to joke about it.
“Where are you from?” a lady asked me in Plymouth. “France,” I said, “I am one of these lazy Europeans.”
She laughed. “But where do you live now?”
“In the U.S., for the past 2½ years,” I said.
She smiled. I was on the path to redemption.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sandrine Rastello in Manchester, New Hampshire at
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org