Today is the deciding run-off vote in the French presidential election, pitting nationalist bigot Marine Le Pen against centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron.
All indications point to Macron winning against the opponent he dubbed "the high priestess of fear." And while shocks such as the one delivered in this country Nov. 8 are in the realm of possibility, smart money says the French, though also dissatisfied with politicians, are not willing to leap suicidally out of the European Union, like the Brits, nor hand their country over to foaming demagogues, as the United States has done.
They can learn from us. The hope of Americans learning from the French is a dicier proposition. We don't look abroad for answers much, and when we do, we tend to limit our thinking and cherry pick our points, as this column from nearly a decade ago reminds us. Notice the foreshadowing of this week's health care debacle.
LE JOUR DE ENERGIE ATOMIQUE EST ARRIVE !
Holding two thoughts in your head can be a challenge. I know -- I can't tell you how many times I've put out the flag because it's a federal holiday, then later wondered when the mail would show up, before making the connection -- oh yeah, federal holiday, no mail.
At least the two thoughts collide, eventually. Some people, there just isn't room for a pair. They can hold tight to one idea, if they concentrate, but should a second concept arrive, well, the first one slips from grasp and is lost.
Sunday, I wrote about nuclear power, about how John McCain, when he could force himself to pause from damning Barack Obama as a socialist, said he would build 45 nuclear reactors and put the waste, well, somewhere.
That seemed to me to be highly unrealistic, and struck a friend in the nuclear industry as "crazy." We couldn't build that many reactors.
Readers, needless to say, rallied behind the infinite capacity of the United States to do anything, in theory.
"So Neil, France could do it but the United States can't?" a reader wrote. "We can't do something the French can?"
In a word? No, we can't. Yes, France has 59 nuclear reactors generating 87 percent of its electricity. But France is -- prepare yourself for a bad word! -- a socialist state. The French electric utility, Electricite de France, was nationalized in 1946, and while shares were offered for public sale a few years back, the government still owns 85 percent of the nation's nuclear power plants.
So nuclear power works -- in socialist France. But we hate socialism, remember? It might as well be terrorism, to hear how the Republicans throw the word around, no further elaboration necessary. Although we didn't seem to hate it when we were nationalizing banks and mortgage lenders a few weeks back.
"This 'can't do' attitude of yours stinks," the reader continued. "The United States has done anything it has set its mind to. We walked on the moon in less than 10 years after JFK proposed it."
Again, that was the government. The moon landing was another socialist boondoggle, right up there with Canadian health care. And the 'can't do' attitude isn't mine; it belongs to those who -- rather unpatriotically, in my mind -- believe our government is inherently bad and must be starved to death until it improves.
It's people like John McCain who damn, for instance, any government effort to fix our tragically deficient health care system as "socialist" out of one corner of their mouths while simultaneously proposing grand, expensive new government energy endeavors out of the other. (It's a very selective habit -- farm subsidies? God's given right. Safety standards? The intrusive hand of Big Brother).
The French -- as the reader accused me of believing -- are not "better than us." But like all Europeans, and most industrialized countries for that matter, they understand that certain areas, such as roads, nuclear power and health care, are the duty of government.
France not only tops the world when it comes to generating nuclear power. It also has the sixth-lowest infant mortality rate -- 3.3 deaths per 1,000 live births. The United States is 29th in infant mortality, tied with Poland and Slovakia, with 6.7 deaths, twice France's average.
And in case you think that means the United States is twice as good as France, please go back and re-read the preceding paragraph, slowly. Or ask a friend to talk you through it before writing to me.
TODAY'S CHUCKLE . . .
Did you notice my restraint when dealing with the French? I was bearing in mind, as Napoleon said, "the French complain of everything and always." But let's end with Robert Morley, who sums it up perfectly:
The French are a logical people, which is one reason the English dislike them so intensely. The other is that they own France, a country which we have always judged to be much too good for them.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 20, 2008