Why France Might Copy America's New Deal, in a Very French Way

Presidential candidate François Hollande wants to channel Franklin Roosevelt, with a twist.

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Rajab walks during a February 2 anti-government demonstration in central Manama / Reuters

Should France get a New Deal of its own? How about a "French dream"? Americans watching the French presidential election and listening to Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy's leading challenger, are likely to find a lot of his terms and ideas strangely familiar.

"Culture is part of the French dream," Hollande declared at an event in Nantes in January, echoing a familiar campaign slogan. The French Dream is also the title of his collection of speeches, released last August. "Culture is not a cost, not an expense, but an investment," Hollande continued at Nantes. Culture is the antidote to the current "fear of the other, the sense of decline," and "French culture abroad is a way to make our language, our production, and paradoxically our economy more prominent," he said.

The notion of cultural revival as stimulus has plenty of precedent in American history. A gloss on the current "French dream" discussion, written by director of public radio institution France Culture, Olivier Poivre d'Arvor, for Le Monde, links the two explicitly:

An effective cultural policy involves continual reinvention. In the 1930s, in the midst of the Depression, America invented the New Deal: as the crisis and unemployment raged, far from sacrificing the arts budget of his country, President Roosevelt proposed to raise the nation's morale and boost employment with a new cultural package. Through an ambitious program, he ordered dozens of thousands of public works and financed artistic creation in theatre and music.

Of course, there are other examples of this approach throughout history, but there's a way in which Hollande attaching himself to Roosevelt in particular, insofar as that's what he's trying to do, makes a lot of sense. As Yale political science professor David Cameron pointed out to me a few months ago, the French left has struggled in the past year to come up with a coherent response to the fiscal crisis. It's hard to be a Socialist Party candidate when austerity and a sharp, even magical, economic upturn are the flavors of the day. Hollande has frequently come under fire for the costs of some of his proposed programs.

Presenting an FDR-linked platform is a way of recasting a socialist candidate in the image of something both social-democratic and at least vaguely associated with economic success ("vaguely" because there's no real consensus among economists on what ended the Great Depression). The cultural aspect is a nice bonus, and the whole analogy could provide a helpful campaign shorthand: Hollande wants "investment" the American way -- everyone knows Americans aren't spendthrift socialists (size of national debt notwithstanding). Furthermore, in tying his campaign to a dynamic moment in American history, Hollande is cleverly cutting in on Sarkozy's turf: the sitting president is strongly associated with "Anglo-Saxon" economics, i.e. American-Thatcherite notions of deregulation and growth priorities. He's previously worked to cast himself as the French politician who isn't scared of Anglophone dynamism.

Of course, this is just one moment and one aspect of a long and multifaceted campaign. It's also hard to know how the "French dream" and cultural revival-as-stimulus ideas came into being, and mind-reading isn't the goal here. But while one wouldn't want to overemphasize this aspect of Hollande's campaign, this much can be said: putting an American spin on cultural revival while tapping into anti-finance sentiment -- as Hollande is also doing -- might be the only way a socialist could squeak by in this climate.

That should tell us something about the oddness of the political climate now more generally. Who thought we'd see a moment this decade when a French socialist chased after an American aura? Then again, who thought we'd see a moment this decade when American conservatives yearned for a European approach to government spending? The financial crisis has done some odd things to Western democracies, and the tales may yet get odder.