Politics & Policy

Jeb Bush Apologizes to France — France Is Not Impressed, and Neither Are GOP Voters

(David Becker/Getty)

Jeb Bush admits he “screwed up” during last week’s GOP debate, fumbling an attack against Marco Rubio. “I just gotta get better,” he told reporters in New Hampshire. Then he proceeded to prove he wasn’t getting better, by apologizing to the French for his debate jab against the length of their work week.

Bush campaign officials went to some effort to paint the apology as partly in jest, having it reported that Bush delivered it with mock solemnity. But the words of the apology were quite serious and, more importantly, the French took the apology completely seriously and reported it as such.

Apologizing to the French will not score Bush any points with the GOP primary electorate. It may show he is a gentleman, but it also shows he lacks the killer instinct of his father and brother when they ran for president In 1988, George H. W. Bush would pointedly refer to Pete du Pont, his GOP primary competitor, as “Pierre” during debates. In 2004, Jeb’s brother made sure Democratic nominee John Kerry was ridiculed for his closeness to the country seen as having spurned the U.S. after 9/11.

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Donald Evans, Bush’s commerce secretary, quipped that Kerry was “of a different political stripe and looks French.” Kerry was also taunted for ordering his Philly cheese steak with Swiss cheese and then daintily eating it as if it were tea toast.

But that’s not Jeb Bush’s style. He made his original comment about the French in the course of knocking Rubio over his poor voting record. “The Senate, what is it, like, a French work week?” he said. “You get, like, three days where you have to show up?”

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The reaction from the French was swift, led by French ambassador Gerard Araud. He called Bush’s statement “bombastic nonsense.” But even he urged his compatriots to be indulgent. But many weren’t. “My inbox was full of French journalists,” campaign spokesman Tim Miller told reporters. So on Tuesday, although he delivered it with some deadpan humor, Bush retreated and issued an apology to the French.

“I now know that the average French work week is actually greater than the German work week,” Bush said. “So, my God, I totally insulted an entire country — our first ally — that helped us become free as a nation! And I apologize. That did a huge disservice to France.” He then said his real goal was to complain about Congress’s having a three-day work week.

#share#But the damage was done. The French newspaper Le Monde declared his statement a “mea culpa,” and other French media said Bush had retreated.

What makes matters worse is that Bush may have been wrong to retreat. Even though it’s true that French workers put in an average of about 39.5 hours per week, not far behind the euro-zone average of 40.9 hours, blue-collar workers in France do have a 35-hour work week and must be given “rest days” if they work beyond it. French law also mandates five weeks of vacation.

The web of regulations around work in France are a national nightmare. Certainly, even elements of France’s Socialist government recognize the need for change. Last year, economics minister Emmanuel Macron declared that the 35-hour-work-week rule needed to change if the country were to have any hope of bringing unemployment below 10 percent. “We could allow companies and sectors . . . to depart from the rules on working time and pay,” he said.

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He soon followed that up with tougher comments. “France is sick. It’s not well,” Macron declared. “There has been a fever for several years in this country which is called mass unemployment. . . . There is no choice but to . . . reform the economy.”

But reform has largely stalled, so Macron returned to the fray this August with a new, thinly veiled attack on the 35-hour week: “A long time ago, the Left believed that politics was conducted against business, or at least without them, and that France would be better off if people worked less. These were false ideas.”

Nor is France’s work week an isolated example of its rigidities. A new report from the Center for Globalization Research argues that an incestuous, favor-trading French elite has curbed innovation and growth:

We define the Elite Thicket as a web of connections of interrelated and vested interests which has resisted institutional adaptation in order to preserve their rents. We can identify these overlapping interests through homogeneous career paths and formation; in the case of France, their education through the Grandes Écoles and the process known as pantouflage, the transition from high civil service to top management positions . . . leading to behavioral stasis, dependency on state solutions[,] and institutional deterioration. A development that contrasts with a German institutional structure that has been able to adapt.

So is this the country whose work ethic is so strong that Jeb Bush feels the need to apologize to it? At least one reform-minded French economist I spoke with says Bush’s apology “has given aid and comfort to those who don’t want France to change.”

#related#I realize that Jeb Bush wants to have good relations with France if he becomes president, but the time to mend fences is after Inauguration Day — not before. I realize that Bush made his apology in New Hampshire, which has a large French-Canadian population. But most of them have no loyalty to the mother country’s work rules and certainly won’t vote on that basis. His father certainly didn’t worry about offending French-Canadian voters in 1988 when he greeted du Pont as “Pierre” before the 1988 New Hampshire primary.

It’s a small incident, but in retreating before an onslaught of yapping French journalists, Jeb Bush raises even more questions about just how much he’s cut out to be a presidential candidate in the modern era. Jeb was a great governor of Florida, but his father and brother must be having some real concerns about just how much he fits in with the inevitable rough and tumble of today’s politics.

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