In October, I decamped with my wife and children to Paris for a month. You could probably fit all the Francophile conservatives in America in the elevator of my building, but I do love France, especially Paris in the autumn. And as a conservative of traditionalist convictions and melancholic temperament, it was a pleasure to escape the final weeks of a presidential contest between the multi-culti Jimmy Carter and an establishment Republican who makes Bob Dole look like General de Gaulle.
Given his weariness of the transience, deracination, and galloping vulgarity of his own culture, the American traditionalist takes pleasure—intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic—in a pilgrimage to Europe. Yet it is difficult to see France today as a source of hope. For all its prosperity and accomplishments, France no longer seems to be a place where the future happens. It has been a long time since anybody looked to the French for new ideas in art, film, economics, politics, culture, or even cooking.
“The Soixante-Huitards destroyed everything,” says my young friend, a French writer from an established family and the beneficiary of an elite education. “Those people from ’68, they left us with nothing. I call myself a conservative, but in truth, I don’t know what there is left to conserve in France.”
He explains that after the student-led upheavals of 1968, Europe decisively cut out the roots of its heritage, leaving European culture as it is lived—as distinct from what one encounters in museums, churches, and libraries—to either imported American pop culture or postmodern relativism.
Jean-Louis, as I’ll call him, has little patience for my American pessimism. Yes, he understands that Romney Republicanism is uninspiring. And yes, he gets my point that America has deep-set problems it can’t seem to solve. Yet as dispiriting as conditions are for conservatives in America, he says over a lunch of choucroute garni, it’s a paradise compared to France.
“The French right is either racist, illiberal and dirigiste”—the National Front, he means—“or it’s completely statist. Did you know that 56 percent of our GDP comes from state spending?”
I did not. In Europe, that number is second only to Denmark’s; it is also nearly triple the U.S. figure. Jean-Louis says that a material and psychological dependence on the state pervades France and enervates individual initiative. The French right, in his view, is as compromised as the French left.
“France desperately needs a Margaret Thatcher,” he says. “There will be no Thatcher for us.”
Jean-Louis, who is in his twenties, says he is planning to emigrate to America. This is hard for me to understand, I say; though France is beset by problems, it remains free, democratic, and prosperous.
Yes, he says, but we don’t have it within our culture to resolve our problems. The past has been cut off as a source of renewal. The elites of the left and the right only want to preserve their privileges. The French economy is anti-entrepreneurial, and the French attitude towards absorbing immigrants rigid and unworkable.
That, plus the fact that America is a far richer place for practicing and cultivating Christianity, convinces Jean-Louis that America is where the future happens. “I am a French patriot, I guess, but I’ve got so much faith in America, and in America’s ability to solve its problems,” he says. “I’ve got to get out of France, for the sake of my kids.”
Don’t romanticize America, I warn. I talk about the deleterious consequences our own Soixante-Huitards left us with and of the political stasis preventing much-needed reforms in, for example, entitlement spending and education.
“Here is the difference between France and America,” Jean-Louis ripostes. “In France, we are stuck. In America, you think more creatively, and are more willing to do things differently.” He mentions homeschooling, which is legal in France, but relatively rare and looked upon unkindly by the state. Its growing popularity in America is, to him, a sign of what people with liberty and initiative can do to improve things for their children, especially to rekindle appreciation of Western civilization.
Jean-Louis’s parting words, from a European to an American: “Cling to your religion, desperately, and keep the government out of as much stuff as possible.”
Walking off lunch with a stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens, I found my spirits rallied by this conversation—and not in a “grass is always browner” way, either.
Jean-Louis is right: for all our problems, we do have within the American character, and under American laws, the creativity and liberty to build new institutions, to construct, as Alasdair MacIntyre said of the early medieval Benedictines, “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.”
In fact, just that morning, I sat reading the Odyssey as part of my older son’s school project. He is part of an entrepreneurial educational effort some Christian homeschooling parents founded this past summer, in which our children meet twice weekly for guided instruction in the classics. My son’s tutor encouraged us to take this family trip to Paris, to give the boy a deeper understanding of our tradition—in the belief that true education entails far more than what can be regurgitated on standardized tests. Homeschooling families are, in many ways, the new Benedictines of whom MacIntyre wrote.
My son came to Paris from faraway America in part to learn more about the things that make him a child of the great Western tradition: Greek, Roman, and above all, Christian. He can do this in large part because of American liberty—specifically, the traditionalist belief in Burke’s small platoons of civil society and a libertarian conviction that the state ought to keep its hands off the private realm. A bright young French Catholic conservative believes that my son, as an American, has a better chance of holding onto the great tradition than his children, citizens of a republic in which people have lost the capacity to renew their culture and affirm their civilization.
For France’s sake, I hope Jean-Louis is wrong, but I have heard the same thing from other thoughtful French conservatives on this voyage, and from a French Catholic émigré friend in the U.S., who told me that 15 years ago he realized what Jean-Louis did and got out. Whatever the future holds, I will come home to America with a gift from Jean-Louis: more hope for the future of my country than I had when I left.
That lunch in Paris, especially Jean-Louis’s valediction, left me with an enlightening irony: that traditionalist conservatism, and the cultural renewal it promises, almost certainly requires being more of a libertarian in politics than I have been.
Traditionalists believe that the debilitation of our culture is at the root of the current crisis. Wiser traditionalists grasp that cultural restoration cannot be legislated any more than a garden can be ordered to grow by act of Congress. Could it be that the kind of change we want can best be achieved not by imposing it—a non-starter, by the way, with younger generations of voters—but by limiting the state’s power?
This is not a new thought, but my lunch with Jean-Louis gave it fresh saliency in my mind. Unlike libertarian conservatives, who focus on the primacy of choice, traditionalist conservatives emphasize what is chosen. Yet to paraphrase Burke, libertarianism, with its exaltation of freedom and choice, could be, in the American context, the only effective political means of creating the space for conservation of the permanent things.
Rolling back the state is no guarantee of cultural change for the better, but as Jean-Louis and other young French conservatives tell me, the alternative is a kind of suicide. You could build a new culturally conservative but broadly appealing politics on that. If America needs not a Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, but a new St. Benedict to lead authentic cultural rebirth, our country also needs a new Ron Paul to make that politically possible.
Rod Dreher is a TAC senior editor. His blog is www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.