Socialism and America: The Example of France

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October 9, 2019

The Republicans have made the charge that the Democrats are “socialists.”  The implication is that Democrats are unamerican, that they are the enemy of a vaguely defined frame called “the American Way of Life.” If we are to understand what the Republican Party has become, we must understand why the “socialist” label is more than just mudslinging. It is messaging that says a great deal about the Republican Party, what it stands for and, above all, what sort of America they are in the process of creating.

To aid my understanding of the Republicans, a party that in my view is no longer conservative, but quite radical, I examined what modern socialism actually is as it is found in a number of the advanced nations. It is nothing like the bogus socialism that was central to the self-mythologizing of the USSR. Western socialist countries, all the Scandinavian countries, and several others,  are all democratic and prosperous.

I’ve narrowed my scope to just France, where I now live. I will contrast certain key features of the French economy and French society, and point out the social values that are expressed by those features. Specifically, I will look at various aspects of what I think of as “societal infrastructure,” health care, public order, wealth and taxation, and the environment.

Since I am neither an economist nor a political scientist, merely an interested observer, this will be relatively brief and more anecdotal than analytic. In an appendix, I have added some figures. The net effect of these observations is to show that  France is a very different society from the US. The socialism that I experience in France has produced a society that in my experience is both more rational and more humane than American society. But my ancestral roots in America and my hope for America’s recovery from its present crisis, lead me to offer these observations.

In the aftermath of the “send them back” incident, when Trump launched his attack on the four freshman congresswomen of color, AOC and her close colleagues, I noticed that the Republicans didn’t jump to Trump’s defense with the usual “not a racist bone in his body” sort of nonsense, it occurred to me that I was missing something. Perhaps we should not be focusing on the divisive racism of the president; was there something else we should pay attention to?

With that thought, a new question arose. Does Trump in fact lead? If he does not lead, what then? Is he the cover for another agenda? What has happened to this once conservative wing of the American political spectrum?  What is the reward that makes such moral degradation and such suspension of ethics and decency endurable? Is the opprobrium of history that will surely come for having followed such a man worth it? Is it as simple as political self-interest; just being reelected? Reelected, yes, but to what end? Is it that they actually approve of what Trump does because their agenda is, in main, like his? A truly radical agenda, as it now seems possible in this moment of Constitutional crises, which is to bring about the end of the American democracy and initiate an authoritarian government, rule by an oligarchy, by white men?

The Republican House Minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, a reliable Trump defender, supplied something of the answer. He defended the president after “send her back” by introducing a new subject. In doing so, he revealed the deeper Republican agenda, something more complex than just  political tribalism. McCarthy told reporters, “I believe this is about ideology. This is about socialism vs. freedom.”

In the months following this exchange, I saw this socialism trope repeated over and over. During the Democratic debates in Houston in September, for instance, the Republicans flew an airplane over the city towing a banner, like we used to see over beaches in the summer advertising beer or suntan oil, that said: “Socialism will kill Houston’s economy.”

Socialism, long a code word for communism, has been injected into what passes for political thought in the United States. Representative McCarthy’s Manichean proposition reveals as much. This is, as he said, about ideology. Democrats, in this scenario, are not just the loyal opposition, the party with alternative policies on issues as diverse as health care and the environment; they are an enemy that is “destroying America’s institutions and democracy,” as Republicans and Fox News guests repeatedly say. 

The red-scare devil has been invited back into the public square; socialism is a foreign ideology that is opposed to everything that, according to the Republicans, America stands for. And anything that can be labeled socialism—something that the Republicans are reluctant to describe in detail for fear that it might seem attractive—must be rejected.

When they say “socialism,” they want you to think of mobs of uncouth workers rising up against honest and productive citizens, barbarians usually dark-skinned killing the economy of Houston and every other place in the land of the free. They want you to think of a place where the American myth, that anyone can get ahead and get rich, is shown up as a fantasy, a society riven by class warfare. They want you to imagine government-run “death panels” deciding when your aging loved one would be put down. Government control over our bodies.

This was the nightmare scenario the Republicans peddled, via Fox News and was the worst thing imaginable (at least it was until Trump introduced the invasions of immigrant women and children into the mix). The health care issue has burned and rumbled in the Republican gut for a long time. During his campaign against Obama in 2012, Mitt Romney said: “you wouldn’t want to live in France because its health care system is socialist.” 

France was a popular demon in those days; the French had opposed the invasion of Iraq and “patriotic” Republicans forced the congressional cafeteria to change the name of French fries on the menu to “freedom fries.” Republican scorn for things French, like the opinion expressed by candidate Romney, has been a reoccurring theme. OK to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. I’ve done it and it is fine. And from the vantage point of living in France, I have reflected on this question of the Republican ideology. 

France is an entirely modern nation, like the United States in many respects. The internet works, the water from the tap is everywhere potable, the first responders are capable and professional. It is, however, a very different sort of society.

Some of these differences are easily noted by the newcomer: the fact that most businesses close between 12 noon and 2 PM to allow for a lunch at home,  something that at first I found inconvenient, coming from a country where businesses are open generally 24/7. I now find it a humane custom, a valuing of family, leisure, and self-care that contributes much to making France what it is.

Food purchased in the street markets spoils very much faster than the same items purchased from a US supermarket, evidence of the number of preservatives found in American foods. Free-range chickens from the open-air village market, purchased from the farmer, are skinny things, but very flavorful, and guaranteed hormone-free.  Dogs wander freely in these village markets. Among first impressions is the superb public transportation system, the 205 mph trains that run so smoothly between Paris and Nimes, near where I live, that one’s coffee doesn’t spill. It takes three and one-quarter hours by train against six and three-quarters hours by car. 

There are, needless to say, societal problems, some of which have parallels in American society. The way France deals with these issues is what marks the difference. Racial issues exist, but seem to be based on ethnicity more than on skin color; this is a subjective impression based on the comparatively (vis a vis US) common sight of mixed-race couples.

France’s racial tensions mostly concern Arabs; a result of its colonial history, it has a large Muslim population that has not been assimilated equitably into the economy. Some young Muslim men without employment have become radicalized and present a serious concern. Some of these young men went to Syria to fight for the Islamic State and now some want to come home; disillusioned or still-radicalized, who can tell?

How to deal with them is fraught with uncertain justice. I have a French friend, a social worker who works with the parents of these boys who were lost to Islamism; their stories, of both the young men and their parents, are heartbreaking. From Syria too came refugees fleeing violence and climate-change refugees as well. These will increase in number as the decade progresses.

France is fully committed to meeting the goals of carbon reduction agreed to in the Paris Climate Summit in 2018. Trump has withdrawn the United States from the convention and rejected its goals. Climate change denial has little credibility in France, none officially. Science, unlike in the US under Trump, is not politicized. Facts are facts. The French press is aware of the phenomenon of falsehoods about climate and much else coming out of Fox News, and has responded with characteristic wit by coining a term for false news, an amalgam of “info” and “faux” (false) that produces “Infox.” 

There is still some anti-Semitism in France, a persistent illness that goes back to the Middle Ages. It is vigorously condemned at the highest level of government; anti-Semitic speech, as well as racist speech, on the street or on the internet, is considered a hate crime and is punishable by one year in prison. An ISP that transmits anti-Semitic or racist content is subject to fines.

The French do not deny their history of anti-Semitism. In 2017, President Macron attended a memorial ceremony at the site of a major round-up (1942, le rafle de vel d’hiv) of Jews in Paris. Macron openly acknowledged the role of the French state and the French people in the Holocaust, admitted it and expressed shame and regret. It is unimaginable, given the political and racial issues in America—and the political passions involved, especially in the southern states—that an American president could apologize for the attitudes of white Americans that produced slavery and Jim Crow. 

French acknowledgment, political and philosophical, about their complicity in the holocaust has resulted in a renewed commitment to a secular society, one in which no religion is favored over another. By tradition France is Catholic, but today it is one of the most secular societies in the western world. The French manage to celebrate most Catholic holidays, Ascension Day, for instance, but this is not generally out of piety, but rather out of the wish to maximize leisure time. 

Less than 25% of the French are regular churchgoers. The liberte, equalite, fraternite motto enshrined in the French constitution requires a secular stance in public spaces. The French make an effort to suppress and discourage tribalism based on religion, a psychological tendency that they call “communitarianism.” The most controversial aspect of this social engineering is that no religious signs or symbols can be worn by students in a publicly supported school—which most are in France. No cross necklaces, no Star of David or yarmulke, no turbans, no hijab for Muslim girls.

To encourage young people to see themselves and their peers as just other children, like themselves, just human beings strikes me as a worthwhile objective.  Identity labeling around religion leads to suspicion of “the other” and often to worse. The law is controversial on free expression grounds, but since it appears to be more about the expression of the parents projected through their children, the law stands.

In America, religion is more deeply rooted. The Republicans, having made an alliance, (cynical on both sides, I believe) with the Christian right, would no doubt condemn such regulations as socialism at its worst, as anti-religion coercion by the state—”godless” as was one of the frequent charges about Communism. They would, I suspect, fight to protect the wearing of the Christian cross. It appears to me that American fundamentalist Christians would turn America into a theocracy, one with strong authoritarian tendencies, where all abortion and birth control would be outlawed.

In France, by contrast, abortion has been legal everywhere since 1975, available on demand up to 12 weeks from conception, thereafter under defined circumstances. Since France is not a federal system, there are no states that can have different laws about abortion or any other matter.

The death penalty has been banned since 1981. It is illegal to extradite someone to a country where the person could be subject to the death penalty. All that said, the Catholic church still has enough clout to mobilize opposition to laws they disapprove of. As I write, there are demonstrations in Paris against a law, being debated in the Assemblee Nacionale, the lower house, that would extend the right to medically assisted pregnancy (IVF) to unwed or gay women. 

The sorts of crime that felons are executed for in the US are fewer in France. Walking around modern Paris, in diverse neighborhoods and at late hours, I have never felt in any danger. The most common crime one encounters is having one’s pocket picked. It is surprisingly common. The street demonstrations, by unions, by advocates for one cause or another, most recently the gilet jaune, yellow vests, have frequently become unruly, even violent, but the bystander is not the target. Inconvenience is the greater effect.

Even including the recent terrorist attacks in Paris (Bataclan) and Nice, the murder rate is roughly 25% of the US rate and the incidence of gun violence is similarly much lower. The idea that a civilian should or could own a military-type assault weapon is considered ludicrous. As would be the idea of civilian “open carry” of a handgun, now legal in a majority of American states.

The French value system, that often prioritizes the common good over the individual’s “freedoms,” in this case the ability to own a military weapon, strikes me as good sense. A value system and the resulting laws and regulations that tend to favor the commonweal over the individual is a significant contrast between France and the US, where individual free reign in almost all activities, from speech to business, is a stated ideal.  

A strong central government is a defining feature of France.  This too, the Republicans abhor. There are no state’s rights issues. The regions, equivalents of a state, are administrative bodies with elected leaders, but concerned with things like job training, enforcing regulations, control of zoning, and setting development priorities, but they make no laws. Paris is the government, but Paris has discovered that the citizens have more trust in government at the town level, so efforts are being made to decentralize creatively and to deregulate many aspects of French life.

My town, with a population of only around 1500, has an elected body of commissioners and a mayor. It puts out a quarterly report about where its money comes from and how it is spent: the paving and landscaping of the town parking lot, a modern school building, light and airy, for the village’s relatively small number of students (after grade six the children will go on by bus to a neighboring town, larger, a consolidated school district),  and a remade boules playing court are examples

The French government plays a direct role in the economy. The French government involvement does not take the form of disguised subsides as one finds in the US, defense contracts to Boeing for instance, or in ad hoc interventions as in the “too big to fail” bailouts of banks. The government owns equity shares and sits on the board in nearly all the major French enterprises: from Air France to Peugeot-Citroen to La Poste to the railroads. The purpose of such ownership is to represent those interests that are wider than those of the traditional shareholders; these, the “collateral stakeholders,” are the workforce, the environment, and affected communities, a broadly conceived sense of the National Interest.

The design of the French political economy, the extensive social safety net and government involvement in the economy, is always in debate between the business-leaning right and the labor-dominated left, with the growing influence of the greens added recently into the mix. French elections (until the advent of the anti-immigrant ultra-right of recent years) were contested along those lines. Judgment as to the success of this political/economic structure falls, as would be expected, along those right/left party lines.

At the present moment, the right wants to privatize the two major Parisian airports; the people,  having learned, perhaps, from the disastrous privatization of JFK in New York, believe the airports to be a good investment to keep in the public’s portfolio. In the US, of course, the Republicans say that the “the market” should rule all transactions, that any activity that makes a profit should be in private hands. This insistence on profit as the measure of an activity’s value to society is a matter of Republican dogma. Government involvement in the economy, with the regulations about safety and the environment that come with this involvement, are among key causes of Republican scorn for French socialism. 

And scorn, too, for the suppression of “free speech” in political campaigns. France has been very careful to make sure that money “talking” does not overwhelm the process. Political campaigns are paid for by the state.  For the French presidency, expenses are capped at 21 million Euros ($23,000,000) for each of the two final contestants; by contrast, the Trump campaign spent 398 million dollars.

There are no PACs; to accept secret donations above the cap is against the law; elections, thus, are not bought and politicians are not beholden to special interests or individuals. Political ads on television are against the law three months before an election, which shields voters from the toxic flood of lies, misinformation, and misleading sound-bytes that have made American politics so sick. 

Nothing so clearly displays the American political sickness as the untruths the Republicans use to discredit socialist-style health care systems. I have first-hand experience with the French way of health care. It is more efficient and more effective, more humane, and much less costly than the US system.

A visit to a French GP provides a comparable experience.  There are no medical assistants weighing or taking blood pressure; the doctor does it. There is no back-office staff dealing with insurance forms from the various companies; the national government is the insurance company (single-payer) and any supplementary claims (top-off insurance with private companies which most French carry at a reasonable cost) are processed by the patient. The doctor enters the history, diagnosis, and treatment into the patient’s account which is recorded on a wallet-sized card that allows the patient to carry the health record to any doctor anywhere in the country.

There is no control over what doctor one can see, no “managed health care,”  no private insurance company, whose incentive is profit, and which can block a treatment by withholding approval. It is not unregulated, however; the state will not pay for procedures deemed ineffective—a medical judgment, subject to error of course, but it is not a profit judgment—or vanity procedures like facelifts.

My French friends say that doctors are overworked and underpaid. What a doctor can charge is set by the government; but the trade-off is that medical school is free. Nevertheless, a pay increase is no doubt justified. Access to health care in rural areas is often inadequate and this is one of the initiating causes of the gilet jaune protests.

Before I qualified for the national health care system, I paid cash for all my medical services and drugs; I found that everything cost roughly 1/10 of what the same service or medication costs in the US. A simple doctor’s visit was 25 Euros ($27); recently, while in the US, I had a similar doctor’s visit, same issue, same duration of visit, 10 minutes, that cost $290, of which Medicare covered only a portion leaving me with a $97 bill and the taxpayer with the rest, $193.

I had a surgical procedure that would have cost $10,000 in the US at a major hospital in Paris; diagnosis, tests, and procedure, for a total cost of $600. The Republicans rely on American ignorance of the health care systems of other countries to push their cruel, irrational, and costly programs, a system held captive by huge insurance companies, big pharma, the for-profit hospital industry, a so-called “free-market” system riddled with unnecessary middle-men, advertising, and avaricious practitioners. 

The other cause of scorn that Republicans have with respect to France is the country’s social values, a care for the well-being of all its citizens. This is expressed in its tax code. It is “distributionist” in that high earners and the wealthy are progressively taxed with the purpose of distributing some of the nation’s excess wealth toward social infrastructure—schools, hospitals, transportation, public housing.

There is the additional purpose of preventing or curtailing the sorts of extreme (often called obscene) wealth that one finds in the US. These taxes are contentious and are always being rejiggered depending on the party in power. The deputies and the government attempt to find a nuanced calculation which suppresses the extreme but tries to do so without tempting the very wealthy to give up all societal and cultural advantages of being French (there are many) by leaving the country and taking their money with them.

Under Macron’s administration, the wealth tax has shifted its focus to the extravagant homes and second homes that the wealthy tend to collect. Displays of one’s wealth are nowhere near as ostentatious as in the US. The French, whatever their relative level of prosperity, conceal their houses behind walls or hedges, a feature of every town and neighborhood that is noticeably different from the US where everyman’s “castle,” from the ranch-style in the subdivision to the McMansion to the palaces in Beverly Hills, is prominent on its lot, to be admired or envied (and emulated, as the Republican argument about free-market incentives would have us believe ) from the sidewalk. The French, on the other hand, are jealous of what they have and suspicious of the envy of their neighbors and so conceal as much as possible. The French modesty about wealth derives, perhaps, from the memory of what happened in 1796 when extremes of wealth triggered radical social change. 

In the United States, whenever someone raises the question of the great gaps between the wealthy and the rest of the population, gaps not seen since the Gilded Age, the time of the robber barons, the Republicans accuse the speaker of inciting class warfare. The truth, however, is that the United States has been engaged in class warfare for decades, a war that the wealthy, with Republican help, have already won, and handily.  The Republican tactic, used so effectively since the days of Karl Rove, is to project onto the Democrats what they are in fact doing. Trump is a master of this tactic.

In France, no one pretends that inequality is not a concern. A le Monde poll published 17 September asked this question: “To establish social justice, is it necessary to take from the rich to give to the poor?” The question would be understood as “sharing the wealth,” investing in social infrastructure, not as a handout. The answer was 57% in the affirmative. I suspect that if the question was put to American voters in such simple terms that the response rate might be similar. This is what the Republicans most fear.

In the United States, with the candidacies of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, with the appearance in the Democratic caucus of articulate and forceful progressives,  this issue will be in the foreground in the 2020 election, a focus that it has not had since FDR.

Opposition to redistributionist tax policies and government regulation is the heart of the Republican agenda. Their fury at Congresswoman AOC and her cohort of progressive women is because of their economic politics, policies which might in fact appeal to a great many voters. What is at stake, and what the Republicans understand and fear deeply, is a shift of political power from the wealthy to the people; a real redistributing of power, not the phony populism of Trump. 

All the above has been to set a baseline from which to look at the meaning of the “Freedom” proffered by house minority leader McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy is telling us how the establishment Republican party is going to frame the 2020 presidential contest. Trump will run on racist fears and the party will fall in behind him. His outrages will serve as a cover for the real agenda. The Republican agenda does, in fact, have a racist component because of the voting tendencies of the brown-skinned demographic, but building a wall on the southern border is not a high priority for Republicans. They have a bigger agenda. McCarthy says it is about ideology. I believe him. So we must try to understand that ideology. About “freedom,” he says. To claim it is about Freedom is a fraud on the American people, but since he framed the issue in that way, I will follow it where it leads (in the next commentary.) 

Congresswoman Cheney of Wyoming stated recently:

I want to make absolutely clear that our opposition to our socialist colleagues has absolutely nothing to do with their gender, with their religion or with their race, It has to do with the content of their policies. They’re wrong when they attempt to impose the fraud of socialism on the American people.

The fraud, I would argue, is the Republican’s. Socialism, as it exists in the western democracies, is nothing to be afraid of. The Republican ideology, as framed by and exemplified by Donald Trump, is. 

Appendix: a Few Numbers

How each country allocates its public funds can be seen in the two charts below. These charts are hard to compare because we cannot always know what is included in each category, but two things stand out.

The US spends 21% of its budget on the military versus 5% in France. The French military is modern and their defense industry is as well. They produce world-class military aircraft and have nuclear capacity. But their military is defensive; their nuclear arsenal, very small, is deemed adequate for its purpose, as a deterrent against aggression by larger powers. The Defense ministry recently declined to request an appropriation of funds to replace France’s aging aircraft carrier (it is one carrier, the US has ten) because, the reasoning went, a carrier’s purpose is to project power in faraway places and France has no ambitions of that sort. 

France’s “protection sociale,” at 57% of the budget is designed to protect against the social risks that one cannot always plan for and cope with through household level budgeting, especially when the household budget is just barely enough: social risks are old age, illness, maternity, disability, unemployment.

The French believe that all its citizens should be shielded from the extremes of misery caused by poverty or illness, that all should be able to live a life of dignity, with enough peace and grace that make life worth living. It is the idea of spending public treasure on “protection sociale” that the Republicans most strongly object to. They have attacked and will continue to attack all aspects of the social safety net. Remember their attempt, under Bush II, to privatize (ie dismantle) social security. They will make another run at the Affordable Care Act.   

Guns and Violence

Private ownership of a  military-type weapon, an assault weapon, is against the law in France. France experiences .21 gun homicides per 100,000 population per year against the US 3.85 per 100,000, a rate nearly 20 times larger. There are guns for sport, mostly shotguns and hunting rifles: 15 guns per 100 citizens; in the US there are 120. The incarceration rate in France is 104 per 100,000 population; for the US it is 655 per 100,000. Intentional homicides per 100,000 population, another indicator of how violent a society is compared to others, numbers tracked through government reports, puts France at 1.3 versus 5.3 for the US. 

Health Care

The World Health Organization ranks the world’s nations by “overall health performance,” a measure that collates access, efficiency of delivery, cost, and outcomes. France ranks number 1; the US ranks number 37. French life expectancy is 82.4 years, the US is 79.3. Infant mortality rate, per 1000 live births, is 3.9 in France versus 6.5 in the US. An American doctor graduates from medical school with between $150,000 and $236,000 in debt; in France medical school is free. 

Climate Change

Fossil fuel-powered transportation will be banned in Paris by 2030 and in all France by 2040. 75% of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power, a strategy adopted to reduce dependence on foreign fuel sources and for environmental reasons. Coal makes up 8% of the remaining 25%. France will shutter all its coal plants by 2023. In the US, 65% of energy is from burning fossil fuels.

A substantial majority of French voters rank environmental issues, especially climate change, in the top three of their concerns. The other issues are daily life concerns, purchasing power and the long term stability of the social safety net, especially the health care system. 66% of voters on the left see climate issues as the most important; that number drops to 46% for voters on the right, but combined, a majority of the French are very concerned about the climate issue. They don’t have the proofs, like hurricanes, that Americans still deny as being evidence, but the increasing frequency of severe heat events and catastrophic rains has made denial less comfortable. 

Corporate Structure

The CEO of Air France makes an annual salary of 1,600,000 euros ($1,700,000.) Not counted in this number are payments made to his benefit into retirement accounts. The CEO of United Airlines makes $14,000,000, of Delta Airlines $15,000,000. These numbers are often called “performance rewards.”  

The CEO of Airbus makes 3,500,000 euros ($3,700,000) annually, (not counted are payments into a retirement account; )the CEO of Boeing, $18,450,000, (not counted are stock options.)

The CEO of Group PSA (Peugeot-Citroen) makes 7,600,000 ($8,300,000) euros annually; the CEO of General Motors makes $22,000,000. The French government has a 14% stake in PSA and it objected to the salary for the CEO as “obscene.” The national minimum wage in France is $11.50 vs $7.25 in the US.

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