Why the French Vote Democrat

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If Barack Obama were campaigning to be the president of France he would be elected tomorrow, according to one senior French journalist. Jean Lesieur, an executive producer for French TV station France 24, paused for effect before adding, "…and Nicolas Sarkozy would come a close second".

Polling in the US shows Obama now clear of John McCain, but there is no question about what the result would be if it was the French, not the Americans, who were to make the decision in November. A recent French survey revealed 80 per cent of French people supported Obama, compared to only 8 per cent for his opponent.

The French media, under no obligation to be partial in its coverage of an overseas election, is not being secret about its love affair with the Junior Senator for Illinois. The esteemed daily Le Monde, for example, dedicated a special section to Obama, reprinting speeches and summarising his background, without giving Senator McCain any similar prominence. The weekly news magazine Le Point has carried Obama on its cover three times while McCain has not appeared even once.

In its election coverage, the French media has in general emphasised the negative aspects of McCain’s campaign than Obama’s, paying attention to McCain’s policy flip-flops for example. Coverage of the Republican candidate’s tilt has frequently descended into caricature since the naming of Sarah Palin as McCain’s vice-presidential nominee: among other barbed comments, one TV show host referred to her as "a woman … biologically".

France’s overt Obama preference is not an isolated case; rather it is a barometer of the general public opinion across a continent that lost patience for the Bush regime long ago, as its antics used up the wealth of goodwill that America had enjoyed for decades.

The direction of Europe’s support was no clearer than on July 24, when Obama drew a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin, while McCain spent the day eating German sausages in Ohio.

Berlin was symbolic for Obama. As he said in the speech he gave, it is "where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other".

"There is a feeling in Europe that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world," he said. "Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future. But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together."

This is a message Europe is clamouring to hear. The appeal to Europe of Obama’s campaign is that he reflects a new generation of global politicians with an astute understanding of diplomacy. His vice presidential nominee Joe Biden is also an experienced international figure who has visited Europe many times. Together they speak not only of international policy, but of the important part Europe will again play in affecting it.

"In this century, we need a strong European Union," he told the Berlin audience, "[one]that deepens the security and prosperity of this continent, while extending a hand abroad. In this century, we must reject the Cold War mindset of the past, and resolve to work with Russia when we can, to stand up for our values when we must, and to seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent."

This message sits well among European countries who are seeking to re-exert their global influence after eight years of being left on the sidelines of international issues such as the war in Iraq.

Late last month in Paris, a Columbia University Alumni panel discussed European perspectives about the presidential election. Lesieur was among three panellists, and articulated the French belief that Obama represented a different vision of the world. "The difference of Obama would be all the more striking after George Bush," said Lesieur.

Lesieur’s description of described an America using its position of extreme power to weigh into foreign policy "like an elephant in a china shop" was a familiar one for the many critics of the current administration outside the US. But this has not just been a trademark of the recent Bush Administration, he noted.

"And thank God for that," interjected his co-panelist Christine Ockrent. Indeed, Western Europe’s failure to act in Bosnia, which led to the Clinton administration’s intervention, remains for many a shameful incident in contemporary European discourse, and a useful pointer for why Europe stubbornly refuses to give up hope just yet on America.

Ockrent, a Belgian-born French television journalist married to France’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner, said that Obama stands for an "America that France wishes it was like". At a time when America has done its utmost to trash its international reputation ("even in the UK, can you imagine?!"), France is nostalgic for the values-laden America that saved Europe from World War II.

"Because Obama is of mixed blood there is a hope he will embody a new politics, which would be the type of politics that France would want. There is a rather over-romantic idea that Obama would be able to reconcile America with the world."

She described Obama as representing a "new generation" of leaders, who work 24/7 on electronic time to discuss issues with foreign counterparts: "The style has changed. Barack Obama is obviously someone who likes to listen, he asks questions, and he waits for the answer."

The third panellist, Guy Lagache, host and managing editor of Capital magazine, alluded to the personality cult of Obama as an important factor in his European popularity. He said he saw in Obama a message of hope and change not just for America, but for Europe and France as well.

"I think the press and French public fantasise about what America will become, for example showing an increased concern about the environment. People want to believe this will happen due to his personality," said Lagache.

To an aspiring multicultural Europe, Obama represents the ultimate politician of the future. As summarised by Lesieur, "He is black, but not too black; Christian, but not too Christian; and Democrat, but not too Democrat."

His attitude and manner is catching the imaginations of other political leaders and aspirants in Europe, which has until recently shied away from the populist hallmarks of American campaigning. Last week, the French press was quick to identify Obama’s influence after the former French presidential hopeful Segolene Royal addressed a concert wearing jeans under an Indian dress, and sporting a new hair style.

Ockrent said the story of the son of a Kenyan goat herder, accepted into Harvard Law School and then the US Senate, has captivated the European media. "He came from nowhere — Chicago — and beat the [favourite for]next American president. That’s why he caught so much attention here," she said.

McCain’s party nomination victory was a lot less dramatic, especially for a media hungry for new stories. "He’s a war hero, well known. You can write that story once, twice or maybe three times," said Ockrent — and then as an afterthought, "he has formidable mother too".

As this writer knows, French love affairs can be rather short lived, and commentators are already predicting what might cause Obama to tarnish his immaculate European perception. The general consensus among the three panellists was that realpolitik will eventually catch up. "He knows it is necessary to change the image of the US," said Lesieur, "but what will he do about Iraq, Russia and Iran? He will have to take a step."

Obama has touted himself as a hawkish Democrat, and while his views against the war in Iraq are well known, his views on Afghanistan are still unclear. According to Ockrent this is causing disquiet in European countries such as France, who are increasing their Afghan security commitments and paying the price in lives. "I don’t think anyone in Europe thinks more firepower is the answer to Afghanistan," she said.

Even if Obama wins the presidency, Europe might do well not to hold its breath waiting for too much change soon after the election. Domestic affairs such as the state of the economy, mean the next American president might first have to stare down a recession before looking to again engage abroad. However, if that means America launches fewer ill-advised military adventures, it would already go some way to pleasing quite a lot of Obama’s admirers.

In days gone by, the world waited on France to say what was proper to think. It was a telling reflection of current diplomacy when, at the end of the panel, a young American student asked Ockrent from the floor "Do you think Obama can win?"

"Well," she said, "that depends on you."

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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