Thursday, November 23, 2006

Ségo no JFK

A lot has been said recently about the similarities between French Socialist Segolene Royal and former US President John F. Kennedy. But like many historical analogies, this is only superficially true. It is true that each candidate has stood out for their youth, glamour, and optimism, and Ms. Royal has been keen to play up that aspect in her campaign, even envoking some of JFK's immortal "Ask not" line in a recent speech: "Today I call on all French people, the men and women of our country, to unite, to mobilize, to ask yourselves what you can do for our country". Yet despite this rhetoric, there are frankly far too many fundamental differences for this analogy to hold.

1. Age and Experience. Although Segolene Royal appears youthful in comparison to some of her much older male counterparts, she will still be 10 years older than the 43-year-old President Kennedy if she is elected into office. During these 40-odd years before his presidency, Kennedy had become a World War II hero for saving the crew of his PT boat when it was rammed in the Pacific, was elected a Representative in Cogress, and later became a Senator. Royal had her first break as a minor staff member for the Socialist hero François Mitterrand. She then held several other government posts, worked in the Lionel Jospin government, and was elected president of the Poitou-Charentes two years ago. Although not unimpressive, she has had a relatively unremarkable government career, and was a relatively no-name politician until several years ago.

2. Foreign Policy. Kennedy never had a weak foreign policy, but during some of the darkest days of the Cold War he was incredibly open to US-Soviet dialogue and cooperation, and also mindful of strengthening the Western alliance. This was articulated best in his first and only inaugural speech:

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
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Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
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And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved

Royal, to some disappointment, has retreated back to the trite lines that describe a world where a strong France "balances" the US, and she has called Britain to either join Europe or the Americans. This continues the foriegn policy hypocrisy that the French have recently perpetrated, that is, pushing for a stronger EU to stand up to the US, and then rejecting the EU constitution. She doesn't realize that a strong EU would not only be good for France but good for the US, which needs a strong partner in today's more uncertain world. Her rhetoric on Iran has been even worse; instead of promising to begin negotiations with renewed vigor and acting as an honest broker in the region, she has said that Iran should not even posses a civilian nuclear program. This completely unnuanced position really underminds any diplomatic credibility she had.

3. Responsibility of Elected Officials. One of Royal's boldest ideas has been the creation of "citizen juries" that would judge or assess politicians between election cycles. Supposedly this would encourage them to act more in line with their constituents desires and keep them to their campaign promises. Although Kennedy obviously believed in representing his constituents to the best of his ability, his prize-winning book Profiles In Courage celebrated the noble risks that US senators have taken for the greater good, even if it meant they were to be derided as cowards or traitors in their home districts. He recognized that representative democracy gives people the right to choose their government, but also gives true leaders the opportunity to lead where and when it might not be so popular to do so. One wonders if Royal could stomach the tough economic reforms France needs if she had a citizen jury constantly looking over her shoulder. And by the way, these juries already exist, they are called polls.

None of this means that Segolene Royal would be a bad president, she is in a very different time and place than 1960's America, and she might be just the kind of optimistic leader with the right qualities that France needs at this period in history. But to quote the famous words of US Senator Lloyd Bentsen, "I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy".

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