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Europeans shrug off Mitt Romney’s criticism

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PARIS — Mitt Romney’s depiction of Europe as lazy and coddled has struck many Europeans as an old refrain that conservative Republicans like to sing on the campaign trail but inevitably abandon if they are elected.

As a result, Romney’s assertion that President Obama wants to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society” has stirred much irony but little ire in Europe. Such caricatures are familiar to most Europeans, analysts said, even as European countries try to trim spending to address a deepening financial crisis.

“It has a rhetorical twang to it,” said Robin Niblett, director of the London-based Chatham House think tank, referring to the criticism of Europe by the Republican presidential front-runner, as spelled out in the speech he gave after winning the New Hampshire primary. “That’s domestic politics, not foreign policy.”

The debt crisis that has strangled Western Europe for most of the past two years has not been read here — by the right or the left — as a reason to abandon the continent’s tradition of near-free schooling, blanket health care and family subsidies. Except in Conservative-ruled Britain, most governments have resolved to preserve as much of their social protection system as they can afford and still get out from under their debt burdens.

“Nobody in Europe is talking about having less government,” said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher specializing in the United States at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

Josef Joffe, editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, noted that Romney’s rhetoric seemed particularly off-key in a country where social benefits remain generous even as Chancellor Angela Merkel pushes fiscally conservative ideas such as austerity and balanced budgets.

“What is Frau Merkel doing, if not quote-unquote ‘Republican stuff’?” he asked. “She’s prescribing austerity, cutting state spending. So in a way, Romney should be praising Europe.”

Several German analysts, recalling Romney’s record as Massachusetts governor, said that in truth he may be the GOP candidate most in line with a German-style social model.

In that light, European media coverage of the Republican primary contest has made fun of the Europe-bashing by Romney and his adversaries, reporting it with more smirk than outrage, based on history that has shown such criticism turn muted once a president must manage U.S. relations with the world.

“If there is one target on which the candidates are in agreement to see who can lash out best, and with concentrated fire, it is Europe, which after Obama has become the most prized punching-ball of the campaign,” Laure Mandeville wrote in covering the New Hampshire primary for the conservative Paris newspaper Le Figaro.

French commentators stood by their icy observations during the Iowa caucuses as well as the New Hampshire primary. In a news report last week, Mandeville used the adjective “ignorant” to describe the candidates and their supporters. The tut-tutting often was directed in particular against Romney, who learned French to do Mormon missionary work in France as a youth but who does not speak with French reporters — even though he found it expedient to do so while advertising the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

France’s main government-funded television station, France 2, broadcast a tongue-in-cheek report this week showing its crew pushing through a crowd, sticking out a microphone and shouting, “Monsieur Romney, Monsieur Romney, s’il vous plait,” while the candidate looked determinedly in the other direction.

That was followed by a sequence explaining that Romney speaks French but was afraid to be seen doing so lest he be attacked as namby-pamby by the voters of New Hampshire — then file footage of him speaking English-accented French.

Bacharan, the Paris researcher, said she was dismayed to hear Romney knock Europe in his speeches because she recalled him being a friendly guest in her home and the homes of other Paris families during his missionary days in the late 1960s.

“I remember him being welcomed by a number of French people, speaking French well and being a pleasant young man,” she added.

But Romney seemed put out by the number of French people who slammed their doors when he came calling, she said, indicating they were in no mood to hear about a religion that bans wine. He also was involved in an automobile accident while doing his missionary work in France. Romney, who was at the wheel, was badly injured and one of his passengers died.

In addition, Bacharan recalled, Romney’s mission in France coincided with the 1968 uprising, when the country was roiled by strikes, demonstrations and left-wing intellectual ferment — and unwilling to listen to a defense of the Vietnam War from a clean-cut American youth.

Correspondents Michael Birnbaum in Berlin and Will Englund in Moscow and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

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