Visiting France helps put America in perspective

Published May 11, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

The Florida Legislature in session, like the works of Michael Crichton, Stephen King and other authors of that genre, is too horrifying to put aside (all the more so for being fact, not fiction). Under ordinary circumstances, I would not have left for two weeks. However, it was spring break in France, where my wife is teaching this year, so off I went. The legislators got little done while I was gone. Nor much afterward, either.

France was delightful. It was nice to be amid people who differentiate politics from such finer things in life as good food, wine and art, who maintain excellent railroads as well as billboard-free country roads, and who are sufficiently sophisticated to understand that even in democracies the people are not necessarily to blame for what their politicians do.

Though Ivy can pass as francaise, everything about the way I walk, talk and dress screamed "American!" I wouldn't have been surprised to be set upon for the war and for the orgy of American French-bashing that has not gone unreported in their media. The actual surprise, however, was a complete absence of malice among the French. Most disliked what appeared to be an American war in search of a pretext, but none seemed to dislike Americans.

Moreover, nobody seemed to mind that there were bistros still doing business as "American" bars. The McDonald's restaurants in Paris were flourishing. There continued to be long lines for American motion pictures. No tit-for-tat over "freedom fries." But as I said, we were among grown-ups.

There was plenty of war chatter in cafes, but to get people to talk to us about what the headlines were calling "La guerre de Bush" we had to draw them out. They know, of course, how he got to be president, which may be why they didn't seem to hold him against us.

The most interesting reaction was from a hotelier in Chinon who marveled at the apparent absence of any opposition leaders in the United States. It was hard to explain to him (it is hard to explain even here) how the fractured American system of presidential primaries on one hand and a Congress on the other leaves the out-party essentially leaderless for more than three of every four years.

Even a little while abroad is good for a fresh perspective on matters at home.

Having taken two trips on France's convenient, efficient and affordable rail system, I was bemused to hear some Florida legislators still contending that the voters were foolish to ratify the high-speed rail initiative. The naysayers may be right, but for the wrong reasons. Here, we would have nothing but a high-speed train. In France, the TGV is simply the latest improvement on an elaborate rail system that was never allowed to fall into disrepair and disuse.

There is often a strike (usually short) under way somewhere in France. ("The one word I learned was greve," says another Tallahasseean who has traveled there.) Currently, there's outrage over government proposals to trim pensions. But nobody questions the country's commitment to excellent, universal health care insurance. Nobody goes without health care, nor does anyone have to worry about how to pay for it.

So it would be inconceivable for there to be a political debate in France, such as I found here late last month, over whether and how to continue state assistance for some 24,000 seriously ill people.

Florida legislators had finally awakened to the reality that on May 1, they were going to be blamed for preventable deaths. The Medically Needy program, which helps some 27,000 uninsured people who have chronic, costly health expenses, wasn't going to run out. But a new rule would kick in, requiring them to spend all but $450 a month on their own medical bills before the state would help them. Some 3,000 children and pregnant women would be spared, but the remaining adults would be choosing between rent and food on one hand and life-maintaining drugs on the other. Just in time, the Legislature saved them and Gov. Jeb Bush quickly and gratefully signed the bill, never mentioning that the spend-down rule had come from his budget office in the first place.

The reprieve is only until July 1, however. A budget beyond that remains to be passed.

It's just not the French who would be astonished that health care is not an entitlement here. It's taken as a right throughout western Europe, Canada, Japan. Here, it is an occasional campaign issue that Bob Graham and other people who should know better scorn as too expensive. Count everything we already pay upfront plus every hidden cost, such as lost productivity, and universal health care saves money.

A recent Kaiser Health Poll found that Americans worry more about health care than anything else. Only 14 percent fear becoming victims of terrorism; 36 percent report being very worried over health costs increasing and 27 percent fear that the quality of their health care will get worse.

By those numbers, it's Dick Gephardt, not Graham, who has his campaign priorities right.

The French would not understand this.