PARIS - If we ask the French what they don't understand about the U.S. elections, we are spoiled for choices. Having seen French commentary on the Obama-Romney duel, the most pointed area of incomprehension is "what it means to be an American Republican."
We just can’t seem to wrap our French brains around this American reality. The proof is the flood of misunderstandings and prejudices on every side, guiding, or rather disorienting, people's judgments.
In French commentary, the Republican is a stupid blunderer, making gaffes, rustic and ignorant. We tend to forget that the Republican movement also includes true thinkers, whose importance we need to recognize, whether or not we agree with their analyses.
For example, there is libertarian Robert Nozick (1938-2002) and neo-conservatives Irving Kristol (1920-2009) and Norman Podhoretz. The standard-issue Republican is also supposed to be racist and misogynist, although the party was founded in 1854 to combat slavery, and the first Republican president was... Abraham Lincoln. Admittedly, today, the Republican camp, with its multiple schools of thought from the religious right to centrists, is still more conservative than the Democrats, and closer to business than it is to unions.
However, if we are satisfied with thinking of the typical Republican as a rich, know-nothing, bigoted white male voter, we are severely limiting our comprehension of history.
The Republicans have dominated American political life since 1968, winning seven out of the 11 presidential elections since then, and they have controlled Congress for years. Today they are the majority in the House of Representatives. Forgetting this massive reality produces strange distortions in our views. George W. Bush seemed so shameful that we cannot understand how he was reelected, while Obama looks so friendly that we do not want to face the fact that his reelection is uncertain.
These optical illusions are even odder because they come from the French, who unanimously call themselves... "republicans," who espouse "republican" ideals and "republican" values. Are we talking of true republicanism on one side of the Atlantic and false republicanism on the other? It certainly looks that way. The original common meaning-- the concept of res publica, the "public affair," as opposed to private affairs-- does in fact lead to contrary ideas on opposite sides of the ocean.
One word – two meanings
The French idea of republicanism not only emphasizes secularism, freedom, equality and fraternity, but also makes the state the guarantor of citizens' individual rights. The bigger the state, the more protection for its citizens. The American idea of republicanism is exactly the reverse. The federal government protects the borders, but the less it intervenes in its citizens' lives, the better they preserve their rights. The difference between these two completely opposite visions of "republicanism" is the relationship of individuals to the central authority.
This difference has profound consequences on our ways of looking at politics, the common good, money, business, personal success, attitudes toward work and free time, social welfare, and foreign policy, among others. In fact, the two ways of looking at the world are so different that it seems almost inevitable that we French, on the whole, don’t get American Republicans. All you need to do to confirm this is try it in reverse. Immerse yourself for a moment in the perspective of American Republicans. As soon as you understand their major lines of thought and internal logic, there is necessarily something you will not understand very well: the French, of course.