During her first diplomatic trip to France in November 2021, Kamala Harris met with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Palace, where she spoke to the strong friendship between France and the United States. No major gaffes were made during her five days in Paris, but the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online news site, still managed to land a “scoop”: The U.S. vice president bought a 375-dollar French cooking pot during her trip. The “exclusive” investigation recounted her visit to E. Dehillerin, a Paris cookware shop founded in 1820, where she spent 516 euros on cookware, including a serving dish and a copper frying pan.
“The vice-presidential shopping spree came as Americans stateside suffer from the worst inflation in three decades,” deplored the journalist. Comments like this are typical of the American right, which loves to accuse Democrats of being elitist and condescending to ordinary Americans. This has especially been the case since the rise of populism in the U.S. Any association with France is presented as a symbol of snobbish refinement and used to strengthen the idea that the left is out of touch with the concerns of “real” Americans – who buy their pots and pans at Walmart, not in the first arrondissement of Paris.
One year before Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi was criticized for her expensive tastes, and was even compared to Marie-Antoinette, the ultimate incarnation of the cruel indifference of the wealthy elite. In April 2020, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives gave a televised interview from her kitchen in front of two refrigerators worth an estimated 10,000 dollars each. The former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich jumped at the opportunity and wrote an editorial entitled “Like Marie-Antoinette, Princess Pelosi enjoys luxuries but ignores needs of desperate people.” In the middle of the pandemic, she was blamed for the financial woes of the country’s small businesses.
Coca-Cola versus Bordeaux
It isn’t wealth in itself that the American right abhors, but rather a certain culture. Conservatives embrace the glitz and glam of Mar-a-Lago and Trump Tower, but frown on the supposedly refined tastes of Democrats as a political faux pas. They admire the American-style luxury and opulence incarnated by billionaire Donald Trump – who loves well-done steaks, Diet Coke, and golf – but they can’t stand “coastal elites,” Francophile bobos in New York and San Francisco. In this war of cultural markers, even the slightest association, direct or indirect, with the language of Molière or the culture of Louis XIV is just another weapon in the conservative arsenal.
The strategy isn’t new. In 2009, journalists at Fox News were scandalized when then President Barack Obama ordered a hamburger with Dijon mustard. TV host Laura Ingraham asked disapprovingly, “What kind of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup, but Dijon mustard?” She saw it as a sign that Democrats are completely out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans, who evidently prefer ketchup to a French condiment. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that in 1997, one of his aides stopped him from ordering Dijon mustard in public, because being associated with that French product was too much of a political risk.
Speaking French and having family in France is apparently even more dangerous. In 2004, Republicans tried to discredit John Kerry by constantly bringing up the fact that he is both a Francophone and Francophile. One year after France’s decision not to get involved in the Iraq war, the conditions were just right for Francophobia. Right-wing media outlets referred to the Democratic presidential candidate as “Monsieur Kerry,” “Jean-François Kerry,” and “Jean Chéri.” The connection with France suggested a lack of patriotism and ridiculous, effete snobbery.
Sometimes these accusations are used against Republicans themselves. During the 2012 Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich paid for a video ad entitled “The French Connection,” showing rival Mitt Romney speaking French. The BBC summarized the communication strategy, which has not changed since then, as follows: “The highlighting of Mr. Romney’s alleged French-language skills is an attempt to portray him as an elitist, European-style liberal wimp.” When there are no scandals to focus on, mentioning France may just do the trick!