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An American Senator in Paris

The French population and media are keen on the man dubbed “le John Kennedy noir” (the black JFK). Their government is more cautious.

by
Francis Turner

Bio

July 25, 2008 - 12:05 am
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Differing from Le Figaro, the editorial writes that, while the people of Europe love Obama, their governments may be less keen. Obama, it notes, has made worrying protectionist noises and may make heavier demands than McCain concerning Afghanistan. It concludes with a quote from Reginald Dale (Director of the CSIS Transatlantic Media Network) concerning Obama’s flip-flopping. “If he senses criticism he changes but he never repudiates his initial position.”

On the small screen a similar pattern of coverage emerges. France 2&3 (the state-run channels) reflects Le Monde‘s view that the tour is just a show for the folks back home, but it doesn’t really say anything nasty about him. Meanwhile, TF1, like Le Figaro and AFP, is more positive, using the same images of a Europe already conquered and also drawing parallels with JFK.

It may be that the two approaches are different sides of the same coin. France desperately wants to love Obama but secretly (or not so secretly) fears that Obama doesn’t love it back in return. However, it could also be that Le Monde and France 2&3 are reflecting the French government’s more nuanced viewpoint, while TF1, Le Figaro etc. reflect the views of the population at large. Certainly it makes sense for the French leadership (and other European governments) to hedge their bets somewhat and not insult McCain in case he ends up becoming president.

Indeed, both President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are in many ways more attuned to the McCain message, as are, for that matter, Berlusconi in Italy and a number of Eastern Europeans. Only in the unpopular Gordon Brown is Obama likely to find a leader who shares much of his political preferences.

Furthermore, with Obama’s somewhat contradictory positions on issues such as world trade, Afghanistan, and Iran (the latter a closer and greater threat to Europe than the U.S.), a wise European leader will not offer support without seeking clarification. Indeed, while Obama’s recently stated position on Iraq –that the troops and money spent on occupying it would be better used elsewhere– is one that Europe’s leaders agree with, they may not appreciate such pragmatism in other areas.

Europe needs the U.S. to be open to its exports and willing to not push for international actions that hurt Europe even if they benefit America. Obama’s focus on internal U.S. factors and his apparent disinterest in both foreign affairs and the effects of U.S. policies on other nations (such as troop withdrawal in Iraq) are definitely worrying for European leaders. In the 19th century Lord Palmerston famously said that Britain has no permanent friends, merely permanent interests.

One suspects that Sarkozy and his European colleagues hope that an Obama administration does not act the same way but fear that it might.

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Francis Turner blogs at L’Ombre de L’Olivier
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