“Gods would be needed to give men laws,” wrote Rousseau in his Social Contract. Most Americans have long abandoned the notion that Obama is such a god—all understanding, but reasoned; all intelligent, but caring. Instead, we see his failure to fix everything, his ups and his downs, and the weariness in his face after so long a campaign. We see that he is only a man.
The French, however, have yet to get the message. In a poll of Frenchmen conducted by the BFMTV and Le Groupe CSA, 78 percent of respondents said that they would vote for Obama if they could, including 68 percent of respondents belonging to Le Front National, France’s far-right nationalist party. Only five percent said that they would vote for Romney.
It’s easy to see this sort of enthusiasm reflected on the street. Along with some other U of C students, I was lucky enough to go to an event hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to France the morning after the election. Leaving the event bedecked in American flags was the perfect opportunity to observe French reactions to the election. As we walked down the streets there were smiles, nods, fist pumps, thumbs-ups, and cries of “Yes We Can!” and “O-Ba-Ma, O-Ba-Ma!” Most memorably, a woman opening her shop saw us walk past and timidly called out, “Qui était victorieux?” Who won? When we told her that Obama had won, her entire demeanor changed, a grin breaking across her face. She hooted with glee.
Though there is something charming about the French response to Obama, it doesn’t quite add up ideologically. It makes sense that they would prefer Obama to Romney as the more liberal of the two candidates, but the enthusiasm goes further than that. Like many Americans, they fell in love. They fell in love with a politician who, far from being the socialist he is hyperbolized to be, would probably be on the right in France. He is a politician who believes in capitalism and Jesus. Obamacare preserves the role of private insurance, while France has had universal healthcare since 1945. So, what’s going on here?
There are many potential causes of Obama’s initial and continued popularity in France. In some ways, he simply benefited from his placement in history. Coming in on the heels of George Bush, detested by the French in large part for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Obama automatically looked good by comparison. When I was in France in 2006, I heard nothing but complaints about Bush, and when I was there again in 2008, I heard nothing but cheerful praise for Obama. The French felt, and rightly so, that Obama’s vision of society and world politics was more in line with theirs than Bush’s was.
In 2012, the global economic crisis provides additional motivation for the French to look up to Obama. The United States is faring the economic crisis much better than France. Since 2008, French unemployment has risen from 7.5 percent to 10.2 percent, and shows no signs of improving. Under Obama, unemployment rates in America have begun to drop. Our economy is showing signs of recovery, while France’s is not.
Finally, Obama’s race should not be overlooked. That black politicians are a rarity in France is an unpleasant reminder of its history of colonization and current immigration problems. For many French, Obama’s election represents a level of tolerance that has yet to be reached in their own nation. For French blacks, many of whom are African or Caribbean immigrants, Obama represents the hope that they will some day be able to attain political representation. The most powerful man in the world is a man of color, and that means something very real for the people that I see every day on the Métro.
A student I met here declared that everyone in the world should get to vote in American elections. The rest of us, the non-Americans, he said, have to live with the results, so why shouldn’t we get a vote? Though stated in jest, his sentiment is not far from the truth for many French people: They wanted to vote, and for whom is no secret. I hope their god does well in office.
Maya Fraser is a third-year in the College majoring in Sociology.