17 Septembre 2016
Hey, I know what you're thinking "Oh no, I don't want to hear any foreigner's opinion on the clusterfuck that is going on right now!" But aren't you kind of curious as well?
Well, too bad.
Saying that France is one of the US's oldest allies is a rehashed banality. We all know of the bonds that exist between our two countries. However, it is good to sometimes remind ourselves of how potent that relationship is, of how deeply it affects our daily lives. In particular, America's cultural influence and its weight on the international scene make it so that its politics are relevant even to French people.
For instance, as a teenager, I avidly followed the 2008 election, including the primaries, during which I got to know such interesting characters as Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, or Sarah Palin who all got their fair share of French media coverage (although Palin, of all Republicans, got the most attention, so baffled were we by the very possibility of her existence). When Barack Obama won, I was among the many French people who cheered (he is still widely popular in my home country).
However, the 2008 American election was the last one I experienced from abroad. I was in the US when Obama was re-elected in 2012 and I am here now. So, since, once again, the race for president is unfolding, I got curious about what people are thinking on the other side of the Atlantic. To find out, I simply asked some of my friends.
This article's purpose is to summarize their feelings on what is going on over here. I have to admit that it might not be the most diverse panel as my friends' profile (almost all of them are young college-educated women) is very similar to mine. But I hope that you'll enjoy this glimpse into the French perspective on the American presidential election!
The American presidential election certainly seems to be viewed as a crucial issue in France. As my friend Marlène says: "the US is one of the most powerful nations in the world and is tied to France in many different ways," which means that "the US elections remain one of the most important milestones in international events."
For Marie, America's "genuine power when it comes to crucial world affairs like the economy, culture and diplomacy" is one of the reasons why the American presidential election is an important issue in general.
Quoting American ambassador Walter Annenberg ("the greatest power is not money power but political power"), Marine emphasizes the importance of political power and comes to the conclusion that: "presidential elections still remain for me a crucial matter, in the US and around the world."
The seriousness with which French people view the American election translates to media attention. Marie-Hanna admits that she hasn't been seeking out information on the election so much but nevertheless thinks that she has "a general idea of what’s at stake here" because "it’s a recurring subject in the French media."
Marlène also perceives the media coverage of the election as generous: "In the French media, we often hear about this deadline."
Luc claims that he has been able to keep himself updated, reading "several articles a week on this subject."
Marie, on the other hand does not think that the issue is so prevalent in the French media: "[The campaign's] coverage in the French media is rather subdued, although during the primaries we got updates about how each state voted," which she thinks might have to do with "the extensive media coverage of the approaching French presidential election." As a consequence, she thinks that French people can't really understand what it's like to experience the American election first hand: "[The French media's] tame approach is also probably heavily responsible for my perception of this campaign and doesn’t reflect the day-to-day reality you experience in the US."
Marine also interestingly underlines how different the election process is in the US. Recalling a visit she made to Hillary Clinton's campaign website, she tells me how shocked she was to see a pop-up window appear with the sentence "Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit for the presidency." with underneath it a little box you can click on to show that you agree with the statement. That kind of occurrence makes her feel like American politics are more violent than French politics : "US politics look like the jungle to me, because it’s so different from my native country and the rules seems to be more obviously ʻaggressiveʼ."
At this point I would like to add that it is true that American elections seem to function by rules that are very distinct from the ones that guide French elections. For instance, ʻattack adsʼ have never been heard of in France and would certainly cause some turmoil.
Even if my friends claimed that they have been able to follow the primary process to some degree, their comments understandably focused on the two current nominees. The only candidate other than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to have been mentioned is Bernie Sanders.
Both Luc, for whom the socialist's elimination was a real blow ("I have been really disappointed by Bernie Sander’s loss.") and Marlène ("I would have personally voted for Bernie Sanders, whose ideas seem the best to me.") expressed their support for the failed democratic candidate.
Not surprisingly, my friends are baffled by Trump's political success.
As Marine sums it up: "In the 21st century, how can such an extreme political figure with appetite for shock phrases rather than constructive guidelines pretend to run one of the most powerful country in the world?".
Marie-Hanna wonders if the real-estate tycoon's good political fortune is fueled by the sheer ignorance of his fan base or by a general rancor of the American people towards its political elite: "Are they so ignorant? Or are they just tired of politicians and is their vote meant as some sort of punishment?".
In the same vein, Claire asks: "How can one support a man who doesn’t have a clue about what he’s saying, prompts Russia to spy on Clinton and even slyly incited pro-gun rights people to assassinate her?".
Marlène stresses how shocked French people are by Trump's advance in the race: "What we see on TV and read in the news seems pretty crazy to us." She is disconcerted by the fact that he keeps pushing for indefensible acts (in particular the use of torture and the construction of a wall along the Mexico border) "only to become in the end the only republican candidate left in the race and come dangerously close to winning the election." That apparent paradox "simply makes our jaws drop."
Marie's words convey the same consternation: "Despite polls in his favor I cannot picture [Trump] effectively becoming the president of the US [...] what a huge catastrophe it would be."
I don't think there's anything surprising about my friends' wariness towards Donald Trump. But what about the more reasonable candidates of the two, the one who's most likely to become the next president of the US: Hillary Clinton?
Well, she is not getting a ton of love from the other side of the pond.
Claire blamed her for some of the same wrongdoings that have troubled many Americans: "Hillary Clinton, who juggled with classified information and countless phones during her time as a secretary of state admitted herself that she didn’t know that the letter ʻCʼ on a file meant ʻClassifiedʼ."
Another common grievance with Hillary Clinton: that she is an elitist disconnected from the reality of the electorate's everyday life is found in one of Marie-Hanna's comments: "Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is not super exciting. One gets the feeling that a political elite has ʻinfiltratedʼ the system. After father and son Bush, here come the Clintons, husband and wife. It’s too bad."
However, Marlène points out Clinton's professionalism as well as the popularity of some her policies with French people: "This candidate seems to me more reasonable, both in what she suggests to put in place but also in the way she manages her campaign. She is a classical political figure. She [...] benefits from a great fame, being the wife of a former US president beloved by the French and having led meaningful battles (for instance free health care for all)."
The fact that Hillary Clinton would become the first female president of the US as also been noted. For example, despite her lack of affection for Clinton, Marie-Hanna conceded that she likes the idea of a woman for president: "I think a woman becoming president would be positive symbolically." Likewise, Marlène underlined that Clinton "represents the possibility for a woman to reach the most coveted position of one of the world’s most powerful nations."
For Marine, the bleak political landscape in America (but not only there) indicates that change is already happening for the worse: "Considering such a political configuration (in the US and in France as well), it makes me think that democracy in Occidental countries is ʻillʼ in some way. Because it can also lead to jeopardize the fundamental basis of unity, the willingness to live together despite all our differences."
Claire shares this pessimistic view and doesn't foresee any positive development: "To me, the elections mostly reflect how troubled the US is. And even if Clinton wins the election -because she is still the lesser of two evils-, I don’t think that the situation will change anytime soon."
Marie doesn't see any change happening in the near future either, but is more optimistic about this perspective: "In the end, I am not that worried about this election and about the new female head of state (fingers crossed)." For her, the presidency cannot do otherwise than maintain some stability: "The next president will merely comply with the geopolitical system that is already in place and won’t upset the international order or our daily life (that’s all we need!) or shift the foreign policy measures or the national ones the US is implementing now. We saw how difficult it was for Barack Obama to impose some of his ideas on the Senate, which seems to me like it is generally averse to change."
I have alternatively seen my expectations confirmed and challenged through this little exercise.
A few things I have expected to come up did. For instance, I was not one bit surprised to find my friends to be as up to date on the issue as they are. Part of it has to do with them graduating from the same political science university as me, but it is also due to the fact that, as I know from experience, the American presidential election gets a lot of attention in my home country.
Another thing I wasn't surprised about is my friends' feelings about Trump. I mean, come on.
Although, in all seriousness, the subject of Trump is too complex to get into right now even though it warrants more discussion.
One thing that surprised me was how unpopular Clinton is with my French friends. I did not sense this animosity towards her during the previous election cycles, but I guess that since she finally became the Democratic Party's candidate, the increased attention has brought increased scrutiny and criticism, even in France.
Anyway, I don't know about you, but I have found it extremely interesting and enriching to read these opinions, and I can't thank my friends enough for coming up with their thoughts in such a helpful way.
Merci d'avoir joué le jeu!