Au Bon Clinton!
Bill Clinton is a former president and best-selling author. What could he do for an encore?
12:00 AM, Jun 25, 2004 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
LIKE FINE CHAMPAGNE, former President Bill Clinton bubbled up to the top of the front-pages this week, popping and fizzing, spilling and overflowing into segments on 60 Minutes and Oprah and Larry King Live. It was just like old times. Clinton was hawking his new book, of course, My Life, which in its first week sold well, with lines of Clinton fans encircling book stores in places like Northwest Washington, D.C., and midtown Manhattan. And yet there was an air of anticlimax to Clinton Week, a sense that a highly anticipated event--the publication of our 42nd president's "tell-all" memoirs--had come and gone, without anything more than the usual PR blitz that accompanies all political book debuts these days. There was a sense, too, that as Americans got their large, doughy hands on Clinton's large, milquetoast book and ploughed into the tome's 957 pages, a question would hang unavoidably over the scene:
Clinton has asked this question himself, it turns out, a fact that we learn toward the end of My Life, as his tenure as president draws to a close. In January 2001, we read, CBS Radio reporter Mark Knoller was ushered into the Oval Office to conduct a final interview with the president, during the course of which Knoller asked Clinton if he was afraid "the best part of your life is over." This is Clinton's response:
I was looking forward to my new life, to building my library, doing public service work through my foundation, supporting Hillary, and having more time for reading, golf, music, and unhurried travel. I knew I would enjoy myself and believed that if I stayed healthy I could still do a lot of good. But [CBS Radio reporter] Mark Knoller had hit a soft spot with his question. I was going to miss my old job. I had loved being president, even on the bad days.
Clinton repeats this theme throughout My Life. He just loved being president, he tells us, again and again and again. Absolutely loved it. With all his heart and mind and body, it seems. He'd do it all over again if he could.
And guess what? He can! There's a legal process through which Bill Clinton can once again be president. Not of the United States, mind you. The Constitution prohibits Clinton from running again, not only for president but also (maybe) for vice president. No, I'm talking about the presidency of France, an office that Clinton, if he sets his mind to it, may one day hold.
Here's how. According to French social scientist Patrick Weil, an expert on French naturalization and immigration, French civil law permits "citizens of states or territories over which France has ever exercised sovereignty or extended a mandate or protectorate" to apply "immediately" for naturalization as a French citizen. Normally you'd have to live in France for five years before applying. But Clinton was born in Arkansas, which was once part of France, and which was then acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, making it "a state or territory over which France has ever exercised sovereignty or extended a mandate or protectorate" [emphasis added].
WEIL FIRST FLOATED the idea in an open letter to the president in the January 10, 2001, New York Times. "As a naturalized French citizen," Weil wrote, "you would have the same full rights as all other French citizens. That includes running for the presidency." There are, of course, a few other legal requirements. Clinton would need to purchase an official residence in France. And he would have to learn the French language. "But," Weil continued, "France will not require you to renounce your American citizenship." So there are perks.
"I've never heard about that," Jeanne Freud, a press officer at the French consulate in Washington, D.C., told me this week. "Louisiana is an American territory." Freud has a thick accent, and overlaid atop a smoker's voice her disdain for my questions hung in the air like curlicues of smoke from a half-ashed Gauloise. "This is a myth," she said. "This is a myth because Louisiana is sold and is no longer French. [Coughs.] This is the same thing if a French person wanted to run for the American presidency."
Except that it isn't quite the same thing. Weil, reached via email, says his proposal is still legal. "This provision of the French civil code still applies," he says. "As I wrote in 2001, he would need to move to France and learn French, but he could apply immediately. It would take between one year and 18 months, enough to run for the next election," which is in 2007.
CLINTON wouldn't be the first French immigrant to enter electoral politics. Manuel Escutia won a parliamentary election in 1981, Weil says, and Kofi Yamgnane, naturalized from Togo, was recently a cabinet member.
And Clinton seems to like France. Here's how he describes a trip to the French capital in 1969:
I spent the first part of June seeing Paris. I didn't want to go home without having done so. I took a room in the Latin Quarter, finished reading George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and saw all the sights, including the amazing small memorial to the Holocaust just behind Notre Dame. It's easy to miss, but worth the effort. You walk downstairs at the end of the island into a small space, turn around, and find yourself peering into a gas chamber.
Clinton was in Paris with a woman named Alice Chamberlin, incidentally, who he had met through "mutual friends." "We walked through the Tuilleries," he writes in My Life, "stopping at the ponds to watch the children and their sailboats; ate interesting and cheap Vietnamese, Algerian, Ethiopian, and West Indian food; scaled Montmartre; and visited the church called Sacre Coeur . . ."
Clearly President Clinton likes the food. But there is also the question of partisanship to consider. "Obviously he would be comfortable in the Socialist party, and probably this party would be comfortable with him!" Weil says. But I'm not so sure. Clinton was always more conservative than conservatives made him out to be. And conservatives in France are not, even rhetorically, enemies of "big government." Clinton could very well run as a Gaullist.
First he'd have to break the language barrier, however. I asked Weil if this would be a problem for Clinton. "I think this kind of political argument would fail if there were a need for new leadership," he told me. "After my article was published [in 2001], a national poll was made by a French magazine that said that 53 percent of French citizens would consider a Clinton candidacy favorably. I don't think the situation is the same today. But in politics, things can change rapidly!"
Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.