I never imagined that I would watch the results of my first presidential election on my laptop. In the middle of the night. Alone in my apartment… in France.
However, studying in France has given me the unique privilege of witnessing the French reaction to our historic election, which has proved to be quite the experience.
Before I left to study in Lyon, the Education Abroad Program warned me and my fellow EAP-ers that the French would be caught up on their American politics. Upon hearing my accent and learning that I was American, the two Frenchies working at a local shop immediately asked me who was going to win the election, a question I seemed to receive systematically, every time the election came up in conversation, as if I was a political pundit actually qualified to make such a guess. Too bad I don’t know how to translate, “I don’t know. I’m not fucking psychic!” Both of the Frenchies loved Obama, and they expressed disappointment about the airtime of the first presidential debates: 3 a.m.
But I soon learned that although it was exceedingly amusing to hear French people attempt to pronounce “McCain,” it would be the end of what little respect the French had left for America if he were to be elected.
Whereas we Americans either don’t care to comment on other countries or simply judge them by their movies, celebrities and food, the French see Americans as a reflection of their president. So you can imagine how much they liked George Dubya’s terrorist-chasing, bible-hugging, McDonalds-loving America. After Halloween, I asked a French friend if kids in Lyon trick-or-treated. He said that they used to, but that the practice of most American holidays has been reduced in the past five years. Why? I’ll give you one hint: I doubt that the same people who fervently protested the U.S.-led war in Iraq wanted their children celebrating a holiday created by that same society.
Most French people are up to date on American politics, but their views of both our system and our candidates are rather simplistic. French newspapers described McCain as a continuation of the Bush policy that they so hated and Obama as one last hope that, if he were to be elected, America still had some kind of sense left.
So you can see why roughly 75 percent of French people were rooting for Barack to win on Nov. 4. America is a very strange place to Europeans. California is larger than most European countries… and it’s only one of 50 states. This is why politics itself plays such a huge role in how we are seen by others, since it’s something that Europeans can actually understand and relate to. Unfortunately, our politics — and thus our representation — from the past eight years has concluded with a failed war, a worldwide economic crisis and broken ties with overseas allies. But now that Obama has been elected, the French have hope again that America has learned from its mistakes and truly does want a change, even if it’s just a symbolic one.
Saturday night, on the way back from a club, a French man stopped my German roommate and I in the street. He first asked for a cigarette, but quickly switched to small talk. (Evidently, two blonde girls walking down the street is a little more of a rare and exciting sight in France than it is on Del Playa Drive.) When I revealed that I was American, he went straight to the Obama topic. But now that the election is over, the question changed. He asked if I was happy about the results, and I told him, “Bien sûr, oui! Je suis trop contente!” His semi drunken demeanor suddenly changed and he straightened up a little before he asked, “But will he change the world? He’s only a man.”
I’m not sure, drunken Frenchman… but he is already rebuilding the reputation of America overseas. And that’s enough for me.