The 2008 presidential election here in the United States is very important to the French. How important? “Too important," said Douglas Herbert, business editor with the TV news station France 24, "to be left to the American electorate to decide.”
In this, France is not alone. Across Europe, journalists and editors interviewed by The Observer say, people are coming down with the 2008 fever.
“I’m on my fifth U.S. presidential election and I don’t remember anything like this, certainly not in the primary phase,” said David Usborne, the U.S. editor of the Independent, the British daily.
Toby Harnden, his counterpart at The Daily Telegraph, was sent to Iowa 10 times between the time Barack Obama announced his candidacy and the state’s caucus earlier this year. He said his paper “can’t get enough of the election.”
Andrew Steele, the BBC’s Washington bureau chief, described this election as “the most covered U.S.election in the history of the BBC."
It’s partly the obvious stuff: so much of Europe is entangled with the U.S. in the war on terrorism and the Iraq war. Also, American power is keenly felt in Europe on social, economic and cultural levels, as it is all over the world.
And then there are all the reasons that make this election so gripping for Americans, too: The first time since 1928 that neither an incumbent president nor vice-president has run; the most open race since (take your pick from 1976, 1952, 1924, etc.); the fact that either a woman or an African-American is going to get the Democratic nomination.
But there is another reason Europeans have been so captivated by this election: they have lately found their own domestic politics bland, predictable and uninspiring by comparison.
Jackie Ashley, of the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, wrote that “there is an unpredictability, optimism and openness in the 2008 race that many on this side of the Atlantic will envy,” while Janet Daley of the Daily Telegraph has argued, “Where in the U.S. the democratic process is heroic, in Britain it is squalid.”
For the most part, it is clear whom they are rooting for: Republicans have gotten so little coverage in the European press that the average reader over there could be forgiven for thinking that the race for the White House is a straight choice between Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton.
For the exception that proves the rule, there’s The Finn Valley Voice, a paper in the remote, small town of Ballybofey, County Donegal, in the northeast of Ireland, which officially endorsed John McCain last month with the front page splash: “Vote for Cousin John McCain.”
(A U.S. geneticist has traced McCain’s ancestors back to Ireland, and has said that there could be up to 400 people in Country Donegal related to the senator from Arizona.
A journalist with The Finn Valley Voice, Pat Holland, told the Irish TV station RTE that his paper’s endorsement should help McCain “a little.”)
But generally, the interest there (as, arguably, here) is primarily in the Democrats.
“The combination of Hillary and Mr. Obama makes it more U.K.-reader friendly," said Barbara Gunnell, an associate editor of the left-leaning British weekly magazine the New Statesman. "The Republicans are getting very little coverage.”
“For a paper like the Guardian," said Harriet Sherwood, the newspaper’s foreign editor, "the Democrats are of special interest.”
“European papers generally want the nice, Prius-driving, gay-loving yoga instructors of the blue states, versus the bible-thumping, inbred oil moguls of the red states," said Sean O’Driscoll, an Irish freelancer who writes for the AP, The Belfast Telegraph and The Irish Times. "But it’s not always that simple. Except in Mike Huckabee’s case.”
‘Qui est Barack Obama?’
It’s fortunate for Mrs. Clinton that the Europeans can’t vote in the primaries. If the mania for the 2008 Democratic primary has gripped European readers, it’s really all about Barack Obama.
Last month, for example, Mr. Obama was featured on the cover of the weekly French newsmagazine L’Express, with the headline, “Qui est Barack Obama?” (Who is Barack Obama?) The story described him as the Michael Jordan of politics, the prodigy from Chicago, and asked, "Is he the black J.F.K.?"
He has also been on the cover of several other best-selling French newsmagazines. One of the reasons why Mr. Obama is so popular in France, according to Antoine Agasse, a financial reporter for Agence France Presse, is because he, like they, opposed the war in Iraq – so he reminds them “how clever they are.” (“They always like that,” he added.)
Mr. Obama has also succeeded in seducing the Italians, according to Christopher P. Winner, the editor and publisher of The American, a monthly magazine based in Rome.
Female political leaders are not that much of a novelty for many Europeans: think Margaret Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s, and Angela Merkel today in Germany, while Ségolène Royal came close to becoming France’s first president last year.
“But the Obama factor is something entirely different with the Italian media,” Mr. Winner said. “They’ve decided that he is the millennial version of J.F.K. Because of his global roots, he is an intrinsically more attractive figure."
Global roots: in fact, Europeans seem to think that Mr. Obama is such a break from American politics as usual that he is, well, almost European.
In France, said Mr. Herbert, Mr. Obama is seen as “being one of us, a foreigner. They don’t just see a black candidate; they see him as being able to identify with the outside world, as someone who understands how Europeans and the rest of the world view America, as being able to bridge that gap.”
“I’m not sure how aware the Spanish public is of the difference between Obama and Clinton’s policies,” said Lucia Lijtmaer, who writes for the Spanish daily newspaper ADN, and teaches British and U.S. media at the University of Vic, in Catalonia. “But there is a clear feel for the difference between the two personalities: Obama comes across as being more connected to the European social democrat tradition, while Hillary remains under the shadow of the Democratic Party apparatus.”
Perhaps unaware of the fact that Mr. Obama’s polices can be occasionally bland and are sometimes quite centrist, Europeans, not always appreciative of nuance when it comes to U.S. politics, have identified him as the real lefty in the race. In other words, as one of them.
The Spanish, for example, according to Lara Bonilla, who freelances for a Catalan paper, Avui, have a “very superficial approach… [They] identify wrongly that Democrats are leftist and Republicans a right party.”
And this, in the French mind, is where Mr. Obama comes in.
Mr. Herbert, a “lifelong Francophile” who came to France nearly four years ago and who has been working for France 24 since 2006, said that the French “tend to have a very stereotypical view of Americans – very Christian, fat, gun-toting, very patriotic.”
The Bush Administration is probably as unpopular in France as it is anywhere else in the world, and the President has done little to disabuse the French and others of their stereotypical, superior view of Americans – but this view is currently undergoing a challenge by the cult of Obama.
“In Europe,” said the Independent’s Mr. Usborne, “there is such a degree of puzzlement that Americans could vote in Bush not just once, but twice.”
With the French, said Mr. Herbert: “It’s like: Let’s hope the Americans don’t mess this one up.”