GOP's new French love affair: The romantic story of how it fell in love with an old foe

GOP prez hopefuls like Rick Perry now love France more than anything, as long as it allows them to attack Obama

Published January 13, 2015 4:22PM (EST)

Rick Perry                                 (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Rick Perry (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Fun stuff happens and strange tactical alliances are forged when GOP presidential hopefuls find themselves with an opportunity to criticize President Obama over anything. One day the President doesn't fly to Europe for a rally, and the next day we have leading voices of the Republican party criticizing the President for not showing enough devotion to France.

France. You've all heard of it. And you may recall how it spent the 2000s atop conservatives' shit-list for Europe's Worst Country. When France didn't join the "coalition of the willing" to invade Iraq, it earned years of scorching hot mockery from the right. "Freedom Fries" (and its oft-forgotten House cafeteria partner, "Freedom Toast") is the iconography that most immediately comes to mind from this period. National Review writer Jonah Goldberg's constant references to France as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" -- a line appropriated from The Simpsons -- made him the right-wing media celebrity that he remains, inexplicably, today.

"French" and "France" became a catchall foil for the Bush administration to posture against. Where France was wussy, Bush was strong. Where France and the Democrats were cheese-eating surrender monkeys, Bush and the Republicans were big swingin' dicks. Then-Sen. John Kerry was a Democratic presidential nominee who happened to speak French, and that was more than enough for the Republican party to work with. Remember when John Kerry "looked French"? Let's all reread a few paragraphs of this 2004 New York Times dispatch, for old times' sake.

But perhaps the surest indication that the looming political season will be ugly has come from repeated Republican suggestions that Kerry "looks French."

Not only that: the senator is said to betray a dubious fondness for things French, even the language. A recent comment from Commerce Secretary Don Evans that the Massachusetts Democrat is "of a different political stripe and looks French" was only the latest of several jibes, mainly from conservative talk-show hosts and columnists, that have included allusions to "Monsieur Kerry" and "Jean Chéri."

For some months now, the Republican House majority leader, Tom DeLay, has been opening speeches to supporters with an occasional routine. He says hi, then adds: "Or, as John Kerry might say, 'Bonjour.'"

The remark "always brings the house down," said DeLay's spokesman, Stuart Roy, who added that its purpose was to highlight "Mr. Kerry's lack of support for the war on terror and the way he seems to be in agreement with the arguments of the French."

Until recently France stood in for everything that America, at least in the conservatives' eyes, was not: socialist, pacifist, over-regulated, and homosexual.

But given events in the past week, new descriptors for France have suddenly appeared in the Republicans' playbook. Where once France was a total vacuum of values, a dystopian image of American life under the fist of moderate Democrat John Kerry, it is now "our oldest and first ally." That's how Rick Perry, the outgoing governor of Texas whom we'll generously humor as a potential presidential nominee, refers to France while criticizing President Obama for not attending the rally in Paris this weekend as many other Western leaders did.

This is simply no way to treat our oldest and first ally. President Obama should have stood with France in person, defending Western values in the struggle against terrorism and showing support for the victims of this despicable act of terror. Skipping this rally will be remembered as a new low in American diplomacy.

It's not that we expected conservative Republicans to spend their time insulting France, as usual, in the aftermath of such a terrible tragedy. Obviously they should and will have nice things to say. But the Obama administration's muted presence at the French rally, something that the administration itself is now acknowledging as a mistake, will provide the space for the most conservative of Republicans to now depict France as the greatest country in the history of the world, one from which our own amateur president could learn something about Strength and Resolve. How dare Obama "treat our oldest and first ally" this way? asks Rick Perry, after getting briefed by a staffer about the Revolutionary War. Why, if Rick Perry were president, America would be be hand-in-hand with France, every step of the way.

Republican hawks love France now that President Obama has committed a faux-pas involving them. They love France's Socialist president, François Hollande, for declaring "war" on radical Islam. Perry sent that statement to the Washington Post's hackiest neocon of all, Jennifer Rubin, who, after much consideration, has determined that France now represents the height of warfaring virtue. "France, as its Prime Minister Manuel Valls aptly put it, is at 'war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islamism, against everything that is intended to break fraternity, liberty, solidarity,'" she writes. "Unfortunately, it is not clear everyone has gotten the message." Guess who she means? She contrasts France's noble resolve in the War on Terror to the limp-fisted approach of the Obama administration, whose top-level absence at the Paris rally represented "an appalling display of the criminal justice mindset that still dominates President Obama’s worldview." President Obama is currently bombing the dickens out of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and is seeking an AUMF for that war with no timetable, geographical limitations, or ban on the use of ground troops. Typical lib "criminal justice mindset," huh?

The one sentence Rubin writes that is true, however, is the brief commentary she appends to the end of Perry's statement: "Other potential 2016 contenders will now scramble to catch up to Perry, no doubt." Indeed, there can be no doubt. Ted Cruz was up quickly with a Time op-ed arguing... well, any number of fascinating things.

The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous. The attack on Paris, just like previous assaults on Israel and other allies, is an attack on our shared values. And, we are stronger when we stand together, as French President François Hollande said, for “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

It was "dangerous" for the United States not to have highest-level representation at a rally. You've also got to love the way he manages to name-drop Israel here, in a context that demands not its inclusion. And, of course, quoting France's Socialist president quoting the national motto of France.

But the most notable part of just that paragraph? The admission that the United States and France have "shared values." Goodness. Were this a few years ago, Cruz would be submitting his resignation over such a heresy.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Charlie Hebdo Editor's Picks Europe France Francois Hollande Jennifer Rubin Rick Perry Ted Cruz