In the minds of many Americans, Europe can sometimes be a place as virtual as the blogosphere — not a complex, breathing, multifaceted collection of populations, not an actual location, but rather a reflection of one’s own political beliefs and a way to score a cheap point or two for one’s team, be it left or right.


Take the protests in France last week, and the capitulation by the French government to the demands of the students yelling at the barricades that the new employment laws, which could actually lead to people being, ummmm, fired, should be rescinded.


Andrew Sullivan saw in this capitulation by Jacques Chirac a sign proving, as he headlined it, “France. Over”: “If the French cannot accept even the teensiest attempt to bring market discipline and free labor markets to their over-regulated economy, then they need no longer be considered a nation with a future. They are a nation committing an extremely slow suicide by suffocation. The suffocation is caused by an overdose of insecurity. Its only cure is nerve. But nerve was never a very common French trait, was it?”


And his opinion was not in the minority. Much of the blogosphere took on an anti-French tint when it came to the story, marveling about “weak-kneed frogs” and what many bloggers perceived as a socialist ethic gone awry, stifling any chance at competition and progress. Cigar Intelligence Agency called it “anarchy,” writing that because of “the crushing liberalism that prevails in France, it’s almost impossible for a business owner to fire a non-productive worker who is doing things like, say, marching in the streets and burning cars instead of, well, working. The youth of France have won the right to have a job, without having to work. What a deal!”


Of course, as we said, people — in this case bloggers — see what they want to see. At Alcibiades Would Never Blog, the sentiment was measured but definitely more positive: “Now, I’m not arguing that there’s no issue in France with employees being able to remain in a job that they’re simply not talented or motivated enough to do, but what did piss me off about this legislation is that it specifically targets youth. If the situation, as it exists, is that new employees, in spite of not being qualified to do the jobs they’re hired to do, have many legal protections available to them that make it difficult for their employer to fire them, simply do away with some of those initial protections, across the board.”


Then there was the news yesterday that Romano Prodi’s center-left coalition had won the Italian elections, beating out bombastic media mogul Silvio Burlusconi. And again the bloggers looked at the events on the old continent through their particular glasses.


Jim Rose wanted to make sure the Left was not gloating about it, and arrives at an ominous conclusion, writing that “there’s a lot of celebrating on the Left that Bush has lost an ally in the war on terror. They would have been right had it been a year ago or more, but Italy has done all it can in Iraq and no matter who’s PM, their troops will pull out by year’s end. Berlusconi has been the most effective PM in Italy since WWII and deserves a lot of praise for holding on as long as he did in one of the most messed up parliamentary systems in Europe. It’s also interesting that Italy, like Germany seems to be split 50/50. It’s not just an American trend. Now history awaits the event that will tip the balance.”


Socialism Now notices the same trend of 50/50 elections but has a different take on Berlusconi: “I’m pleased that Prodi seems to have won the Italian election, even if it was by 0.1 percent. Berlusconi has few scruples either in business or in politics. It’s amazing to think how many elections have been close in recent years — last year’s German elections and 2000’s U.S. presidential election spring to mind … The election was fought under new, politically motivated rules drawn up by Berlusconi’s government, which achieved very little else, although it managed to change the law in order to save the Prime Minister from prosecution for false accounting.”


Yup, one man’s corrupt leader is another’s most effective prime minister since World War II. It’s just as well. Americans’ vision of Europe in the last ten years has solidified into two camps — either a decrepit old uncle better left abandoned, a sinking continent rife with social and economic problems; or a more socialized and humane model for what we could be.


You get what you see.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.