France and the United States, These Imaginary Invalids

Imagine a French observer unacquainted with the United States whose only sources of information are the statements of the current presidential candidates. This person would believe that Americans are poor, unemployed, shabby, despised by the rest of the world, invaded by masses of savage immigrants, and that the United States is in total decline. Of course electoral campaigns encourage excesses, as each candidate paints the darkest picture possible in order to present himself as the nation’s savior. But there has never been a bigger gap between the real America and the America of campaign rhetoric than the one opened up  by the speeches of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and, just one notch below, Hillary Clinton. Seen from France, there is a striking contrast between American reality and American political discourse.

Consider the economy.  France has still not regained the level of production reached prior to the crises of 2008. The United States came out of the recession three years ago. As for unemployment, the United States is back to normal; those who want to work find a job. Meanwhile, in France, the unemployment rate is stuck at 12.5%, 25% among the young. Is America in decline? If there is a criterion, it is innovation as measured by the number of international patents registered annually; today’s patents are tomorrow’s goods and services. The number is 80,000 per year in the United States, more than the total patents registered in all of Europe. The United States are the world leader in innovation and will remain so, followed by Europe and Japan, while emerging countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia lag behind, with innovation rates so low they are almost invisible.

What of immigration? The United States accepts a million new legal residents annually who are absorbed by the labor market. Add to this a half million illegals whose migrate above all in order to work; they affect neither the unemployment level nor wages, since they take jobs that Americans don’t want. In France, on the other hand, about five hundred thousand immigrants arrive annually, including legal immigrants, illegals and political refugees. They do not work, because the strict rules of the labor market do not allow it or because their main intention is to gain access to welfare programs, schools and free hospitals. How about the problem of social inequality in the United States? The visibility of the 1% of the super rich on Wall Street who manage the well or ill-gained savings of the whole world in no way harms the rest of Americans who on the whole – apart from the most recent arrivals – belong to the middle classes and have incomes more than 25% higher than the French ($55K as opposed to $43K). As for France, the super rich are discrete and, unlike their American counterparts, they do not practice philanthropy.


And what about discrimination? Though a part of the African-American population remains marginalized, half of it has joined the middle class.  This is not the case of Arabs Muslims in France, most of whom are rejected from the world of work and good schools. The best proof of the decline of discrimination in the United States is that the latest battle for civil rights concerns LGBTs – Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders; if nothing more serious plagues American society than the problem of LGBT access to their toilets of choice, then society as a whole must not be doing too badly. And what of the international standing of the United States? The firepower of the American military is equivalent to that of all the other countries in the world combined; no international crisis can be resolved without American intervention. To be sure, France is doing better than the United States in some ways: it is less affected by the drug epidemic, by obesity and by gun ownership. But these are cultural differences that are hard to change, whatever governments may do.

This brings us back to the stakes of the presidential elections in our two countries. America’s Founding Fathers divided political power in order to prevent its abuse: the American president is a Gulliver tied down by Congress, the Supreme Court, and the rights of states. Since the days of Andrew Jackson, Americans have elected several populist presidents; all have been domesticated by the Constitution. If it populist is elected this year, he will discover the limits of his office or will be impeached. The French president is infinitely more powerful than his American counterpart, but still limited by the parliament and the Constitutional Council, which would also limit the capacity of a populist president to do harm.

On the whole, the France are down in the dumps these days, suffering from a collective malaise of economic origin and from a certain incapacity to accept ethnic and cultural diversity. In the United States, Americans are also troubled by “diversity,” but this is not a national identity crisis. Some Americans are obviously dissatisfied with their jobs or their mediocre earnings, but social mobility is still possible.  In France, however, social mobility has almost disappeared. The twenty-first century will therefore be American, whoever is the next President of the United States. As for France, the next President could heal the national depression, if he turned out to be a good teacher: France is not in decline; it still disposes of an immense economic, cultural and educational capital acquired over centuries. All the same, the United States and France are not as sick as they think. But they are suffering from hypochondria – imaginary invalids, as Molière would have said.


Op-ed published in the June 2016 issue of France-Amérique.

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