U.S. Elections: The View From Paris

Ask Jean Dupont in the local Bar PMU or Sophie Matignon in her salon what he or she thinks of the U.S. elections and what is the response? The short and simple answer would be a Gallic shrug and a change of subject to, well, pretty much anything -- in the PMU, horses or other sports; in Sophie's salon, a discussion of the fortunes of Sarkozy perhaps. National media coverage has played quite a part in this. What with Tibet, the global credit crunch, and for that matter home-grown scandals like Société Général's rogue trader, there hasn't been much time to look at U.S. politics.

Having said that, most French media websites have a dedicated "U.S. 2008" section and some of the coverage in these sections has been good. Last month, for example, Le Figaro produced an excellent summary article discussing the post-Bush future, which was very nicely translated by Watching America. The article talks about the importance of money and fundraising, the likely scars that the Obama-Clinton fight will inflict on the Democratic Party, the powerful oratory but lack of policy of Barack Obama, and so on. It also covers McCain's perceived problems with conservative voters and is, in general, a very good summary of the presidential race as of mid February.

Other newspapers and magazines have presented similar coverage. Typically it is slanted towards the Democratic Party, but one could argue that this is because the Republican race was over comparatively quickly and without much interest. When it seemed viable, Huckabee's campaign got coverage in the classic "how stupid can Americans be?" manner. The not-so-subtle overtone was that religious fundamentalists are gullible fools and religious leaders all devious demagogues, but there was very little discussion of Huckabee's actual proposed politics. This may have been because a serious examination of such policies would have shown that, for the most part, they could have been lifted from the manifesto of any mainstream French party.

There are other omissions. Looking at places such as Le Nouvel Oberservateur's U.S. presidential campaign section, it is striking how little coverage Clinton gets and that the coverage she does get seems to be negative. "Hillary and the Invisible Woman" and "Spitzer Affair: Clinton Has No Comment" have been about the only headlines visible at this site recently; Le Figaro's similarly has "New Blow to Clinton Camp" and "The 5 Errors of Hillary." Compare this to Le Figaro reprinting extracts from the new French translation of Obama's Dreams from My Father. It isn't clear to me why the Clinton campaign is getting so little positive coverage, but it certainly seems to be a trend.

In the last week, Obama's problems with his pastor have received considerable coverage, but in general the French media seems to think that his speech yesterday was a success in "calming the tempest." It was notable that many of the headlines referred to the issue in words similar to "Fox News vs. Obama," indicating that the French MSM felt that Obama was being attacked primarily by the "right-wing" media and blogs. The French, on the whole, clearly prefer Obama to both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, but this seems to be very much an emotional reaction based on the idea that having a "Noir" as president is something special. Obama's rhetoric on change also resonates -- similar rhetoric was a mainstay of last year's French presidential campaign -- and some note has been made of his international past.

McCain's meeting Sarkozy on Friday means there has been quite a lot of coverage of his recent activities. Yesterday he wrote an op-ed for Le Monde talking about his desire to strengthen the ties between Europe and the U.S.. I'm not sure if this op-ed would go down well with the more conservative or neocon Republicans in the U.S., but it certainly makes the right noises to sooth the French intelligentsia and can only help set the stage for a rapprochement should he succeed President Bush. There has also been coverage in various places of McCain's visit to Israel and the resulting endorsement he seems to have received there. On a less positive note, McCain's national security advisor also had a long interview with Le Nouvel Observateur which is rather less comforting to the French. The advisor, Randall Scheunemann, makes very clear that McCain will continue a lot of Bush's policies with regards to the Middle East, missile defense, and so on. On the other hand, the interview ends up on a rather more pleasant note, with Scheunemann restating McCain's admiration for France's nuclear generators and the resulting energy independence. It must be noted that you have to dig to find the interview, so Scheunemann's views seem unlikely to be read by many within France.

All in all, the French media -- when it can be bothered to make a comment, that is -- seems to be happy to see the back of President Bush, and is pro-Obama, anti-Clinton, and vaguely neutral on McCain.

The French public, one suspects, is similar, only considerably more apathetic. If Obama clinches the Democratic nomination, then we will no doubt see a lot more negativity on McCain. If Clinton wins, I suspect the coverage will remain relatively neutral but with more coverage as we approach November.

Francis Turner blogs at L'Ombre de L'Olivier