Invite aujourd'hui par the European Studies Institute de l'universite de Berkeley (California) a un debat sur l'election americaine vue d'Europe, j'ai tente de baragouiner une analyse vue de France. Merci d'etre indulgent a l'egard de mon poor english...
In France, the current American presidential election arouse enormous interest. On July 25th; President Nicolas Sarkozy said the following during a joint press conference with Barack Obama: “French people look at the electoral campaign in the United States with passion”. He is right. In my own country, a lot of people are fascinated by this competition. Let me give you just one example: A French blog devoted to this election, called “I love politics”, received no less than half a million of different visitors in ten months!
Let me be clear: What is exciting for French people is not the US election in itself, it is Barack Obama. Let me be even more precise: It is not Obama on his own, it is the idea to elect an American black president. “Barack Obama’s story is a story that speaks to the heart of the French”, explained Sarkozy next to the Democratic candidate. I will return later on this fundamental racial aspect of the French passion for Obama. Another reason is the impatience to turn completely the page of the Bush administration. As you know, the French feelings towards the United States are extremely ambivalent: hate and love coexist and it’s easy to go from one to the other. French had a very bad opinion of the US in the last period. And they would like so much to have again a good opinion of your country. In that meaning, Obama is the fantasized face of a perfect America.
1) The French Obamania
The reactions of public opinion, media and political leaders are strongly convergent: all are overwhelmingly in favor of Obama. If the French had to elect the president of the United States, the result would be known in advance: 93% of the French voters would choose Obama and only 7% McCain, according a CSA poll conducted in October (1). In the last years, the French were always favorable to the Democratic candidate. But never with so much enthusiasm. They supported John Kerry in 2004 (with 87% of the virtual votes), Al Gore en 2000 (59%), Bill Clinton in 1996 (88%) and 1992 (53%).
Another poll, conducted by TNS-Sofres in September (2), shows how widespread is Obamania in France. No less than 86% have a “good opinion” of the Democratic candidate, to compare with only 35% for McCain (and a poor 18% for George Bush). So, it is not surprising that 80% of the French citizens hope that Obama will be elected president. This Obamania reaches its peaks among youngest electors (88%), senior executives and intellectual professions (92%), highest income earners (86%), people with the highest level of education (85%), Paris region inhabitants (86%) and socialist sympathizers (91%). But we must underline that all social and political groups are pro-Obama. This is the case of 81% of voters of the right-wing party UMP and even of 59% of the sympathizers of the far-right !
Ok, enough with figures ! The media are also very favorable to Obama. And there is much more articles and comments in the press about the Democratic candidate than about his opponent. Newspapers leaning to the left, like “Le Monde” and “Libération”, are openly supporting Obama. On the other hand, the conservative newspaper “Le Figaro” is quite neutral, he doesn’t dare to be in favor of McCain…
The French president could not be indifferent to this vast movement of sympathy for Obama. We must recognize that Sarkozy has proved some intuition about this election: in 2006, before being elected President, he went to Washington and met only two US senators: John McCain and Barack Obama ! Initially, conservative Sarkozy was leaning to McCain. In April this year, he told in private to his ministers his admiration for the Republican candidate. He said he was “somebody good, straight and direct”. But it seems he changed his mind a few months later. When Obama visited France in July, the French president didn’t hide his preference for the Democratic candidate. He underlined “a large convergence of views” between the two of them. And he exclaimed: “Good luck, Barack Obama ! If he’s elected, France will be very happy. If it’s another, France will be the friend of the United States of America”. This is very clear… “Obama, he’s my buddy”, the president also said to a journalist from “Le Figaro”.
Of course, the French left is even more pro-Obama ! In August, François Hollande, the chief of the Socialist Party, declared with his usual sense of humour his support to Obama: “I want, here, to avoid to complicate the election of Barack Obama in the United States, if it was known that, at his summer university of La Rochelle, the French socialists supported him !” In fact, the spectrum of support for the Democratic candidate is very wide, going from the right to the left. In the Comité français de soutien à Barack Obama, you can find the very atlantist UMP Pierre Lellouche, the very right-wing conservative Claude Goasguen, the center-right Pierre Méhaignerie, but also socialists like Jack Lang, Bertrand Delanoë or Martine Aubry, and even the communist leader Marie-George Buffet ! The chief of the ruling and right-wing party UMP, Patrick Devedjian, declared in June that he was “seduced” by the Democratic candidate. Obama has certainly the big merit to unify a country like France which is usually desperately politically divided ! Everybody is pro-Obama in France – even a professional nonconformist like me…
2) The hope of a new Atlantic partnership
Of course, John McCain is not George Bush. But, from France, the Republican candidate is mainly viewed as the continuator of a hated president. His support for the American intervention in Irak makes him very unpopular. Most of the French don’t know that McCain cares much more about Europe than Bush – what is not very difficult. They are above all eager to see the end of the American unilateralism. French are tired of the United States telling to the world what is good and what is bad, and acting alone. On the contrary, Obama is considered as a champion of multilateralism. His Berlin speech has been very well received in France. The TNS poll shows that 80% of the French think that if Obama is elected, the consequences will be positive for the “improvement of the relations between the European Union and the United States”. If it’s McCain, negative consequences are expected by a slight majority of respondents.
The American-European partnership with an Obama administration will certainly be improved since, on most international issues, the positions of the Democratic candidate are closer to European ones than those of his opponent. This convergence is particularly strong with the French diplomacy.
This is obviously the case when it comes to the Irak war. The French agree with Obama's withdrawal plans . On the contrary, McCain's idea to stay a long time in this country if necessary provokes a real concern in my country. The aggressive attitude of the Republican candidate towards Iran also worries the French. They are closer to Obama’s will to put pressure on the Iranian government but also to speak with it. About Afghanistan, the situation is a little more complicated. The military involvement of Western countries is not popular in France. So the strategy advocated by Obama to transfer troops from Irak to Afghanistan is not appreciated by public opinion. On the other hand, president Sarkozy himself is strongly in favor of the Western presence in Afghanistan…
About the Israel-Palestine conflict, French are also much closer to Obama than to McCain. The Republican candidate is viewed as a systematic and dangerous supporter of Israel while his opponent is appreciated for his supposed more balanced position. On this subject once more, there is a real hope that an Obama administration, in cooperation with Europe, will be able to put an efficient pressure to lastly solve this too old conflict.
The climate issue is another example of proximity between Obama and Europeans. If McCain is more open on this subject than Bush, the Democratic candidate goes further and seems to announce the end of an era characterized by an American way of life wasting energy resources, with no concern for the environmental problems. Obama pointed this convergence when he met the French president in Paris: “President Sarkozy told that as European Union President, one of his highest priorities will be the climate change question. I told him that, if I become the next President of the United States, it will be, for me too, one of my key priorities”.
About the economic crisis, it’s almost the same story. Sarkozy began his presidency by tax cuts for the rich, which recall the traditional Republican positions, but ideas of government regulations of capitalism, advocated by Obama, are now the new credo of the French president. Even the mixed thoughts of the Democratic candidate about free trade meet the French sensibility, especially on the left side of the opinion.
3) Obama, an antiracist symbol
That’s the critical point ! French Obamania can’t be understood if you don’t see that, in my country, the half-blood Democratic candidate is seen as an antiracist hero. His excellent speech about the race question has impressed a lot of people in France. Obama is viewed as the proof that race reconciliation is possible, that the end of discriminations is possible.
This has a lot to do with the fact that France is suffering from serious racial tensions. A large part of the people from Africa and Maghreb are badly integrated in the French society. My country is not more racist than any other but the contrast between the French message of liberty and equality and the sad reality of discriminations and ghettos is painful. As it is partly the case in the United States, the social division tends to correspond more and more to a racial division. You know, the elite coming from immigration is extremely small in France. There is not an equivalent of Barack Obama, Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. Sarkozy appointed ministers who have foreign origins but they are not political heavyweights. In all parties, including the Socialist Party, immigration children are confined in marginal positions. And I have never heard any important French politician pronouncing a speech about racial problem in France as direct and deep as Obama's one.
For all these reasons, the Democratic candidate fascinates the French. They project on his character their aspirations for better racial relations. And they strongly hope that Obama’s election will sign the end of the “war of civilizations”…
Of course, all this is certainly a little bit too idealistic! In conclusion, I would like to emphasis on the excessive expectations in France if Obama becomes the next president of United States. I recently met a friend who thought that this American election was more important for the future of France than the presidential election in his own country ! I don’t believe that. And I think that a lot of French overestimate the change Obama could bring to America and to the word. The specific interest of the United States, and of his establishment, will not disappear magically. But it’s nevertheless allowed to hope that an Obama administration will open a new period of regulated capitalism. I confess that I expect, with his victory, a movement in the global ideological balance, I mean the end of the neoliberalism hegemony in this period of acute capitalism crisis. Forgive me, I’m only a poor idealistic Frenchy!
1. Poll CSA-Euro RSCG Worldwide, October 1-2 2008.
2. Poll TNS-Sofres, French-American Foundation France, September 2-3 2008.