June 19, 2008

Obama for the French

The reception of our historical candidate, Mr. Barack Obama, is a fascinating phenomenon in the United States. The vantage point from France is also noteworthy. In yesterday's New York Times there was an article entitled, "For Blacks in France, Obama’s Rise Is Reason to Rejoice, and to Hope."

In my classes, we often have political discussions and Obama is often a preferred topic. My students have expressed surprise at Obama's speech on race because it so blatantly addresses the topic. The United States is rife with racial tension and racism continues in political, educational and commercial spheres. The fabric of racism is different in France though.

The Times article expresses this idea when quoting a French author, originally from Cameroon: “French universalism, the whole French republican ideal, proposes that if you embrace French values, the French language, French culture, then race doesn’t exist and it won’t matter if you’re black. But of course it does. So we need to have a conversation, and slowly it is coming: not a conversation about guilt or history, but about now.” Perhaps this is why Obama's speech on race is surprsing to many French people.

Race does matter. In the US, and in France. The numbers of black representation in politics are pitiful in both countries, but in France there is "only one black member representing continental France in the National Assembly among 555 members; no continental French senators out of some 300; only a handful of mayors out of some 36,000, and none from the poor Paris suburbs" (numbers from the Times article).

The discussion is absorbing though. All of my students, race aside, are convinced that John McCain is a clone of Bush - that there are no differences between these two men. (Now, regardless of whose team you are on, McCain's record and history in the Senate prove otherwise. Furthermore, even if John McCain has toned down his maverick image and now embraces traditional party ideals as the Republican Candidate, I remain unconvinced that his term in office would be a replication of Bush's).

My students are also persuaded that there is no chance that Obama can win - or even fight in this election - that it is literally already won by McCain. Post-Iraq French pessimism is evident here.

One student said to me, "Every time France likes and supports an American candidate, John Kerry, for example, he is not elected." (I smiled at her connection, as if French favor of a candidate has something to do with his defeat in the US).

In one conversation class specifically devoted to Obama, we read his profile from his own campaign website. At the end of his bio, he says, "But above all his accomplishments and experiences, Barack Obama is most proud and grateful for his family." When this was read aloud, the students around the room laughed out loud. I looked up in surprise, not realizing how cultural this statement was. Of course, there is political posturing implicit in a statement like this (although I don't doubt his sincerity therein). But I asked them why were laughing. One student replied, "Oh, it is like how he talks about faith in politics. Who cares about his family or religion?" The answer is 98% of Americans. Politics is certainly a different world in these two nations.


Maria Petrova said...

So true! As a foreigner in the States, it still strikes me when I hear references to the family in political speeches. I also notice the word "Americans." Especially "for Americans." In Bulgaria it's "citizens"... But "the family" is pure manipulation, alas... Christian conservatism rearing its ugly head. John McCain said, "What I want is for families to make decisions about their health care, not government." What he really means is he wants the pharmaceutical and insurance companies to make these decisions, and the word "family" is a nice emotional decoy.

Aralena said...

Very well put, Emilie. The NYT article was an interesting one, particularly the part re. the négritude revival... I raced out and bought Léonora Miano's "Tels des astres éteints." The literary richness of this country will be its saving grace... at least on this subject!

Julie said...

Emilie - Surveys say that France's influence in French elections is extremely high. In fact the correlation between what France thinks and who Americans elect is being used as a political forecast in many situations. You give us a privileged look into that forecast with every peek into the classroom.

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