First Amendment, French Style
PARIS - During breakfast this morning, I listened to RTL, one of France’s major radio channels (my wife’s choice, not mine). There was a quick report on the impending U.S. presidential election.
"Yesterday, we followed Barack Obama’s campaign," a young woman said. "Today we turn to Mitt Romney’s campaign." All right. Except that "following Romney’s campaign" amounted, incredibly, to an interview with a certain Dr. Gordon, who explained that most Americans were grateful to President Obama for having introduced Obamacare. Especially those women who otherwise would have been deprived of any access to birth control. Some journalist at RTL then explained that Romney would abolish Obamacare. And the report was over.
Most listeners, I am afraid, just swallowed the story whole and didn't even understand there was something problematic about it.
The bottom line, indeed, is that almost everybody in France is convinced that Obama is good and Romney is bad. According to a GlobeScan/PIPA poll conducted in 21 countries and released on October 22, 72% of the French support Obama in the November 6 election, the highest figure in a largely pro-Obama survey. According to an earlier Pew report, America’s popularity in France rose under Obama from 42% in 2008 to 69%. One may entertain some reservation at the way these polls were conducted, and wonder whether some figures were not a bit inflated. But it is true that Obama is popular in most countries, and immensely popular in France.
Sympathy for Obama is rooted in the deepest layers of the French collective psyche, right and left. He is supposed to stand for a tame, less dominant, less assertive America; and France, like many other former great powers -- from Russia to China, from the Hispanic realms to the Islamic Umma -- is driven by resentment against Anglo-Saxon dominance at large, and American great power in particular. That was, after all, Charles de Gaulle’s core political legacy (much more than the need to tame Germany) and the not-so-secret rationale for his Faustian alliance with both communism (Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese) and Islam. In the 1960s, when de Gaulle actually presided over France, a sizable part of the French opinion understood that a powerful America had in fact helped France to be reborn, to remain free in the face of communism, and even to become a great power again (just like Germany or Japan). That current never materialized into a sustaining political force, however, and it gradually ebbed away.
But collective psychology may not be enough by itself. Sympathy for Obama as the symbol of a declining America has to be constantly reactivated, even in France. And here we come to another point. The French are arguably the easiest Western nation to be brainwashed. Not that France is exactly a police state or one-party regime. It is just a statist state, where most media (including those which are supposed to be private or privatized) are under either the direct or indirect supervision of the state meritocracy (or "state nobility," as the ultra-left philosopher Pierre Bourdieu used to call it), i.e., the nation’s ruling class, a Janus-like Leviathan with both a conservative-Gaullist face and a left-wing-Gaullist face.
Most journalists learn that in order to survive and succeed within such an environment, they must abide by the following unwritten cultural and political codes: political correctness, of course, at least up to a point; corporative loyalty; and, above all, quiet acquiescence to the state nobility’s dominance, agenda, and geopolitics. When, in addition, you have only state-run universities and research institutes, run by coteries, and almost no independent foundations, you are coming close to an Orwellian, all-pervasive control system.
Citizens, however, do no get the point. They think their media are in fact free and that their journalists are usually honest and courageous. Again, it has to do with age-old traditions and delusions.
The French do not believe in unfree systems because they were quite free under what is portrayed as the most unfree period of their history, the Old Regime. Until 1789, the king was theoretically an absolute monarch, free to issue laws and orders at will. However, he had to win the support of almost everybody in the nation, a situation which led to global paralysis and eventually to revolution. Theoretically, publishers and journalists were scrutinized and controlled by the king’s agents. In fact, "illegal" pamphlets or satiric writings circulated quite freely, and had to be taken in account. Hence the famous saying: "France is an absolute monarchy limited by satirical songs."
Lessons from the Old Regime were not lost to the really authoritarian rulers that dominated France later on, from Napoleon, the military dictator turned emperor, to the Gaullist-elected dynasty of "republican monarchs." They understood that a measure of "song," of apparent freedom, would make their rule palatable. Real freedom has to do with habeas corpus, property, and the Bill of Rights. Freedom, French style, is essentially sticking to 18th century novelists' standards, from Marquis de Sade to Les Liaisons Dangereuses: the freedom not to go to church on Sunday and the freedom to cheat on one’s wife or husband. Enforce "French freedom" -- church not being relevant anyore, only sex is at stake -- and nobody will bother you about real freedom.
Now the French media and indeed the French political class know how to feed the naive French citizenry with unending love, romance, and hard sex stories. What really mattered in France when François Hollande, the socialist leader, was elected president last June was the ongoing fighting between his ex-companion and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, herself a presidential candidate in 2007, and his current companion, Valerie Trierweiler: a tale of jealousy, hatred, and near hysteria. That "Ladies' War" ("Guerre des Dames") sold better than anything narrowly political.
The French were then feeling as if they lived in the freest nation in the world. Why bother, then, to report Mitt Romney’s electoral campaign in a truthful fashion?