From Paris with Love

Dear Mitt: What's this European socialist nightmare you're so afraid of? Trust me, la belle vie ain't that bad.


PARIS – Cher Mitt: Sitting here with a glass of Bordeaux Graves 2005 in my local wine bar in Paris, I am getting the distinct impression that you haven’t managed a meaningful séjour in France for a while.

It’s normal, I suppose, given that you’ve been running hard for the presidency for far longer than my grapes were fermenting. But I’d like to invite you over here for a drink, Mitt — you can knock back a Coke, neat — and we can have a little tête à tête.

You said some things recently, amid the glow of your victory in New Hampshire, that perplexed me and I’d like some clarification. Enough of your campaign-trail advocacy for "economic freedom" and the creative chaos of capitalist destruction, Mitt. You’re far enough ahead of your Republican competitors to afford yourself a little freedom, right? You’ve earned Paris. You may not believe it, but France has changed a lot since you learned to speak French here as a teenage Mormon missionary. (For one, French taxes on really rich people, like you, have gone way down.)

In New Hampshire, you talked about Europe, which is where I’ve been based as a journalist for most of the last decade. With the grin of a victor, you asserted that President Barack Obama "wants to turn America into a European-style social welfare state," which sounded especially sinister because you contrasted that with your own intentions to "ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity."

Listening to you, it sounded pretty nasty, though I admit my interpretation may be a bit skewed — always a risk in countries where there is so much good, cheap wine, and so much time to enjoy it.

But I’m not clear on which part of a European-style social welfare state so offends you in 2012, four years into a global economic crisis that certainly wasn’t triggered by Europe? Could it be what some Republicans refer to as a "Socialist" medical system, even though most European leaders are centrist or right wing? I would explain to you how I was glad to be able to limit my concerns about the fragile health of my Franco-American infant son during his complicated birth, without the additional fears of how many years it might put my family into debt, except that it’s clear from the health care bill you passed as governor of Massachusetts, that you’re already sensitive to such issues.

And what about your jab that Obama "takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe," while you and your supporters "look to the cities and towns of America"? Is it really so bad that European leaders are trying, however awkwardly, to bring their nations together after creating lasting peace on a continent that emerged from the horrors of World War II and the Soviet Union on its doorstep? Dictatorship has been almost entirely banished from a remarkably diverse continent, while on a smaller scale, obesity, that lethal American import, remains a novelty.

But what really got me thinking over my plate of frites and moutarde was this line: "I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become."

What is "the worst," I keep asking myself? But before I hazard a few guesses, I want to thank you for your concern on behalf of the Europeans here, chain-smoking beneath winter heat lamps out on the chilly terrace. It is rough out here in Paris. Since the global economic crisis kicked in, French unemployment increased by about 25 percent. (Then again, American unemployment increased by about 50 percent in that same period — and the U.S. rate is higher, at 8.5 percent, than the averaged unemployment rate of the eurozone’s two largest economies, France and Germany.)

Could it be that you were referring not to those notoriously lazy Germans, but to Athens? Yes, the out-of-control Greek debt crisis was kicked off by systemic deception on the part of that nation’s leaders and their international accountants. Athenians may have enjoyed their ouzo and 6-hour work days, but the austerity and welfare cuts they’ve swallowed (despite great fury) since then — in the name of getting their economy back on track — now makes your Massachusetts look like a socialist paradise by comparison.

Look, we all get that tagging a Democratic opponent as sort of French is an old Republican tactic — one that was used to some effect against John Kerry in 2004 and is even being thrown at you by Newt Gingrich. But Obama? He’s a guy who had almost no direct experience with Europe before being elected. Heck, he wanted to be known as the "first Pacific president" and had little energy for the Old Continent in the first years of his presidency.

But I’m guessing that the thing that really sticks in your craw about Europe is that most people actually like Europe. Sure, the French are among the most pessimistic people in the world, but that’s just talk; they also give birth to the highest percentage of babies on this continent — that’s hope in action. There’s also a reason why Paris receives more tourists per year than any city on earth; it’s a nice place to spend some time. Which is another reason all my European friends are so thankful for their generous vacations. Here in Paris, they tend to use them to get out of town just as most Americans touch down here. It’s a win-win.

But, maybe, Mitt it’s some subconscious guilt talking? Could it be that your resentment has more to do with the fact that old-fashioned values that demand that corporations show some real dedication to their employees in exchange for their employees’ dedication to the company, still exist over here? After all, in Europe there are still countries, like France, in which governments step in to discourage or even prevent fiscally healthy corporations from firing dedicated long-term employees simply to add to an already profitable bottom line.

In other words, Europe includes wealthy nations that have the audacity to limit the Bain Capitals of the world from getting richer simply because they have found something new to cut.

But hey, you don’t have to listen to me. I’m just an American guy, in Europe, enjoying a little wine and impassioned debate in the local bistro. Then again, you should try it sometime — there’s a chair waiting for you.

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