Teaching the Right in France: Teaching American Exceptionalism?

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 11:20 AM
Manchester Ballroom G (Hyatt)
Jean-Christian Vinel , Université Paris-Diderot, Paris, France
Teaching the American Right in France involves more than providing the latest research to students. The terms “right” and “conservative” pose a taxonomical problem for students precisely because these terms have a different meaning in France – a problem compounded by the Democratic and Republican parties have been home to conservatives. Also, France has a strong statist tradition that equates the promotion of the general interest with the intervention of the State in society, which makes teaching the American debates on welfare and the opposition to the federal government’s power difficult. French students also live in a society built on the idea that religion belongs in the private sphere and are trained in schools in which science is never questioned, which leads them to dismiss this aspect of the U.S. Right as an aberration. Also, the political debate in France and Europe often invokes the U.S. as a model or an anti-model. The words “neo-con,” “pro-life” or “creationism” are bandied about in many a book, radio, or TV show but in a way that hinders comprehension of the origins and dynamics of the American Right and its influence on American society.
    The challenge is to debunk the essentialism that undergirds much European anti-Americanism when talking about the American Right. Based on a 4th year seminar that I teach at Paris-Diderot, I will explain how these obstacles can be dealt with and how they in turn affect the way French Americanists can use the growing body of scholarship on the Right in the classroom. I will argue: teaching the American Right in France requires emphasizing its modernity and rationality as much as its traditionalism, the importance of Americanism in its rhetoric, and the ways and means through which the Right morphed into a viable political coalition in the post-war era.