The mainstream media will attempt to spin French President Nicholas Sarkozy's loss today to Socialist challenger François Hollande as a rejection of "austerity" policies--and to urge American voters to reject the deficit-cutting politics of the Tea Party when we go to the polls in November. In fact, there are important lessons from France--and they are the precise opposite of what the media is telling us.
First, to call Sarkozy's policies "austerity" is to insult both austerity and socialism. The French government--like other European governments--sought to close its budget gap primarily by raising taxes, not by cutting the size and cost of government. Neither Sarkozy nor Hollande had the courage to confront the basic, failed structure of France's welfare-state economy, which is the fundamental cause of its budget problems.
Insofar as French politicians have relied on tax increases as the key to deficit reduction, that is far closer to the policy of U.S. President Barack Obama and his Democrats than to the approach of the Tea Party and the Republicans. Even so, American media commentators like Joan Walsh and Paul Krugman are blaming Congress and "austerity" for slow economic growth--though federal spending keeps growing.
Another media angle will, no doubt, be to draw analogies between Marine Le Pen's National Front and the Tea Party. It is true that Sarkozy has suffered from a split conservative vote, and that the effect of a Tea Party (or Libertarian) split in the U.S. would be to hand a victory to Obama and the Democrats. But the similarities end there.
The National Front has a long tradition of racism and antisemitism, and both of those have become staples of French politics. In 2002, it was the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, who suffered from the strong showing of the National Front in the country's first post-9/11 election (a far stronger nativist reaction than anything seen in the U.S.).
Though conservative Americans want stronger enforcement against illegal immigration, that sentiment does not typically come packaged in xenophobia, as it often does in Europe. Both for cultural and economic reasons, the U.S. today is simply better at integrating immigrants into the mainstream of American life, and legal immigration enjoys strong support from both parties.
The French electorate has been disappointed in both of the main candidates--so much so that some voters chose "Biquette, the goat" as an alternative. Sarkozy lost because, like nearly a dozen other European leaders, he lacked the courage to make the harsh but necessary reforms to set France right. The lesson for both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. is that political cowardice is no longer an option.