Mitt Romney a Francophone?!? Quelle Horreur!
As a contentious Republican presidential nomination process finally moves into its endgame, Newt Gingrich pulls out his trusty French-bashing niblick and uses it on...fellow conservative Mitt Romney?
There are so many things wrong here I don't even know where to start.
In a recent television spot in support of presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich (that phrase in and of itself makes me throw up a little bit in my throat), the erstwhile spearhead of the neo-conservative movement assails Romney for all sorts of left-wing, Massachusetts-style behavior, links him to Michael Dukakis (!) among others and then finishes with back-to-back images of Romney and John Kerry muttering simple phrases in lousy French, followed by the narrator gravely informing us that "Romney speaks French, too."
It wasn't until the second viewing that I realized the whole spot is backed up by cheesy, stereotypically French accordion music.
Before looking at this a little closer, a few facts are in order:
- Romney learned French because he did his LDS mission work there: what could be more admirably Republican than that?
- The clip of a smarmy Romney introducing himself in French that Gingrich put in the ad is from Romney's days with the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee: French and English are the two official languages of the Olympic Games. Somebody had to do the spot!
- Gingrich himself lived in France for multiple years and once wrote a doctoral thesis on post-colonial education policy in the Congo, a Francophone country formerly occupied by Belgium. Although it would have been impressively redneck of him to have done all that without learning any French, I'm not buying it.
So...what's really going on here? It's no big news that political ads tend towards misrepresentation and half-truth, but their rhetorical underpinnings are no less revealing for it.
For decades France has been the punching bag for American conservatives of all stripes, targeted either for a perceived lack of military might, an overly hands-on government (don't say the s-word!), relaxed social mores or Gerard Depardieu. Never mind that France has the second-largest military budget in Europe, a government considerably less "socialist" than several of its neighbors and that the population has suffered no visible consequences of full frontal nudity on prime-time television. Americans fight the Taliban alongside French soldiers in Afghanistan. French cooking and luxury products dominate their respective American markets, and more Americans visit France than any other country besides Canada. This can't all be Depardieu's fault: why are (some) Americans so receptive to the anti-French message?
I've got a theory, both as to how it started and why it still goes on despite all evidence to the contrary.
France is the only European country without a large immigrant community in the United States
I think this is an enormous piece of the puzzle. No one would blink if a presidential candidate spoke Italian, Greek, German or Gaelic because we identify these languages with the very fabric of American "ethnicity." What decent-sized city doesn't have an "old" Irish- or Italian-American neighborhood? Who doesn't know of a Greek-American restaurant, run by real Greek-Americans? Hamburgers and hot dogs, stalwarts of American cuisine, are both sad relics of authentic Germanic origin...
...now, what does the phrase "Franco-American" bring to mind?
For Americans, France is our most present European ally that has truly remained foreign.
OK, but why has it stuck around for so long?
Somehow (and at least in part for the reason noted above), French culture came to be associated with snobbery, high society and effete intellectualism. (After the better part of a decade here I'm pretty confused as to how this happened, but that's a story for another time.) The truth is that no European culture shares the zeal of American anti-intellectualism, the movement primarily responsible for perpetuating French-bashing and the obvious target of Gingrich's TV spot. Sure, France brought us Foucault, Truffaud and Marcel Marceau, but why should these folks and the culture that begat them get up working-class American dander more than Freud, Werner Herzog or any number of perfectly maddening Scandinavian intellectuals and the cultures that spawned them? Only because blue-collar Americans have been taught to do so by intermittent yet consistent recourse to French-bashing by (marginally) respected public figures within American conservatism.
(Oh, and never mind that Romney himself has been perhaps the harshest critic of the so-called "European economic model," blaming our current woes on the evils of socialism. Pretty sure he's not going to get elected and immediately propose minimum-wage increases and state-supported paternity leave.)
What Gingrich really ought to be ashamed of, though, is that he's always sold himself as a man of letters, a PhD-wielding firebrand with both the brain and the brawn to change American conservatism; now, at a time when Americans are falling behind partially because the country is (alongside France, ironically) one of the last bastions of second-language acquisition failure in the industrialized world, he wants to make the conservative base suspicious of a presidential candidate because he learned a foreign language as a college student?
Ironic too that Gingrich's ad finishes by saying, "Romney will say anything to get elected."