Parisians Marvel at Spectacle of U.S. Election Race
You thought maybe le foot (soccer) was the national sport of France? Wrong. It’s la politique. And this year there’s a doubleheader! For the first time since 1988, the U.S. and France are holding presidential elections in the same year.
Generally speaking, the French feel a strong political kinship with the U.S. because the countries fanned each other’s revolutionary flames, and the two nations were forged (reforged, in their case) at the furnace of the Enlightenment. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, France, like the rest of the world, was watching with hope and wonder as Bush rode off into the sunset and the U.S. elected its first African-American president.
This time around, though, average French people aren’t paying much attention to what’s going on in the U.S. Their bandwidth is maxed out with their own high-stakes election, the multiple crises in Europe, and the ongoing aftershocks of the Arab Spring.
Those among the French who are paying attention to the election, mostly les intellos (intellectuals), are enjoying the spectacle, finding it simultaneously entertaining and horrifying. On one team, there’s America’s suave, crooning president, and on the other, the GOP candidates, whose retrograde rhetoric simply baffles the French.
From left to right, the French appreciate Obama the president for his efforts to institute universal healthcare, but they’re quite disappointed that he still hasn’t closed Guantanamo. But Obama the candidate has charmed them utterly. Presidents and presidential candidates here in France are, for the most part, reserved and dignified (read: dull), often graduates of ENA (the École nationale d’administration, a Harvard-level statesman-producing factory).
Obama is so dignified he could be French. But he’s also just plain cool. The French—the people and the media—get a kick out of his coolitude: his laid-back demeanor, his humor, his hipness (publishing his campaign playlist on Spotify), his ninja fly-swatting skills and moments like his impromptu duo with B.B. King.
In France’s 2007 presidential election, after 12 years of the dignified yet amiable yet ineffectual Jacques Chirac, the French felt a need to shake things up a bit (and maybe let some fresh air into their stuffy politics). So they elected the guy who seemed to be the antithesis of the traditional candidate: former business lawyer Nicolas Sarkozy, a hot dog whose bulldozer leadership style, pro-business policies and decidedly un-French tastes earned him the nickname “Sarko the American.”
But he’s not cool (though he thinks he is). Cool is not a characteristic that comes naturally to French government types. Just look at the campaign posters of the two leading presidential candidates this year (François Hollande and Sarkozy). See? No cool.