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The American election seen from France

In 1952 Howard Hawks shot a film that helps understand the weird political relation French people weave with American politics. The film is named The big sky in the US and La captive aux yeux clairs in France. Two titles for two ways of looking at the same continent. In this film, the audience follows a gang of trappers sailing up the Mississippi in the prospect of some kind of negotiation with a native tribe up north. Among the gang, half are French and half are English. They get along pretty well, although they don't have the same expectations from this huge territory behind the gently moving riverbanks. The French entertain the gang with an accordion and a carefree attitude. They have friendly relations with the Natives. The English are nice fellows, but see the Natives as an obstacle; and dream of what grand accomplishment could be expected from this unsuspected place. The English win and America becomes the United States of. The French help the new state to gain independence and offer the statue of Liberty to the nascent nation. Two centuries later, the Americans & the British rid Europe of nazism and fly to the rescue of the French among others.

However, the French from France never totally gave up the secret hope of a big chunk of this continent remaining faithful to their own American expectations. Whatever the matter, they always have an opinion on American politics, American way of life, American presidents and American geopolitical choices like deleting Iraq, threatening Iran or ignoring Syria. Trump, the last president, was intensely controversial and many citizens of the wide world had definite ideas about the 2020 election. The French stuck with this mute fantasy that they should, one way or another, be part of the electoral process. At least, that their preference should be taken in account. They followed the November 2020 adventure as from inside.

French voters were never invited to cast their ballot, but in 1988, they would have voted Michael Dukakis in; then John Kerry also in 2004 - two europhile candidates. When Barack Obama was campaigning for president, although his global project was to turn America's back to Europe, most French citizens were massively pro-Obama. They loved Obama's style, his elegance when walking or speaking, his being more than a president, a decent person and a wise man. For this 2020 election, the liberal young middle class, the so-called bobos, the urban left, was seduced by Bernie Sanders' audacity where they recongnized a long tradition of consideration for the deprived and for the planet. The right-wingers had no candidate among the Republicans, thus their huge dilemma. The National front, taking action for a disoriented lower middle class and what is left of a non-working working class, tried to catch an international status by attempting a flirt with Donald Trump who ignored them.

Most French people couldn't believe that this clowning businessman could win an American presidential election with no program but his chaotic challenge to any conventional policy. This didn't fit the image they had of America. And yet, the clown became 45th president of the US. On and again, the French had a prejudice that this guy was such a misfit that he would never finish his term. Yet, not only did he finish it without a flinch, but he demanded another ticket for the merry-go-round. In most European countries Trump seduced those wishing a strong man, a tough guy, a macho, a Maverick, un mec. In Russia they have Putin, in China Xi Jinping, in Brazil Bolsonaro, in the Philippines Dutertre, even in tiny Hungary they have a strong Viktor Orban! And, after years of Berlusconi in Italy, GB was playing tight yet fairly well with this cheap cheat named Johnson. The French far right and parts of the regular right had arguments for wishing another four years to the businessman and TV entertainer.

In January 2017, Didier Fassin, an anthropologist, had written an op-ed column in the leftist newspaper Libération, suggesting that French literature had a nicely designed character for the then newly elected president: Ubu. Ubu is the central character of a famous play performed for the first time in 1896 called Ubu roi, king Ubu. The author is Alfred Jarry. This Ubu hero kills the legitimate king, grabs his throne, decides whatever comes into his mind, shoulders being brutal, vulgar, criminal, confuses the kingdom finances with his own purse, openly insults his wife and humiliates his people. Ubu generated a new word in French, it is ubuesque. Fairly well used in politics, it means grotesque yet hilarious. This profile fitted perfectly Donald Trump as far as the story remained a fantasy. But it was too much of a mental twist to admit that the farcical but very real president of a very real country, actually the most powerful country by far, as for money, energy and weapons, to admit that this buffoon had turned the play into real life. Or turned real life into a plot inspired by a sharp sense of absurd. There was an unsolved issue on the name of this tall, tanned and unpredictable gambler. The whole world was panting for the coming election with the secret hope that this terrible game was to end up soon - or last forever. But the closer the vote, the sharper the doubt. Nothing was written. I would bet my hat and socks that some Parisians lit candles in their favourite church for an imperiously demanded outcome.

During the electoral campaign, the same divide opposed a big majority of the French people against a populist minority. We call populists in Europe those flashy and aggressive politicians who, being born liars, see many reasons to link whatever they have to say with what sounds funny, sexy or necessary to remain in power. After all, Berlusconi, Netanyahu, Erdogan and more had remained in power with a game conceding a few likely facts for tons of fake ones.

The climax of the ubuesque performance popped out when Trump proudly declared being positive to coronavirus. If it were true, the guy who had vanquished the deadly pandemic in a couple of days was Superman. If another bluff, it was such a daring one that it imposed total respect. The French are so mesmerised by whatever comes from the US, that they didn't even consider that the American people could cast their ballot in such a delirious hoax. They had filled the vacuum in their mind with plain democratic theories and sweet people such as JF Kennedy, Rosa Parks or Bob Dylan. In a fortnight, they discovered that some Americans had no idea about what the world looked like beyond their district limits, that many of them believed that the earth was flat like the palm of their hand and that the world had been created in seven days. That many of them, true Americans, had no future besides sleeping in a car till death or shooting a dozen schoolchildren with an AK47. The straight French pundits started blaming the brutal rednecks for a possible return of Trump in power. Like many Americans, desperate humanists bet on Biden's name seen as the last possible ditch in this oral thus creeping civil war. Desperate French Yellow Vests, who had been vilified by the press a full year as narrow-minded provincial bums, openly hoped for a comfort or a solace under Trump's name. All were disoriented and haggard. Only in the social housing neighborhoods did people, having between covid hunger and beheadings other fish to fry, ignore this dramatic plight. Day in and day out, survey after survey, most French figured out that the America of the American dream was drawing close to a nightmare.

Actually, all urban humans in the world are Americans of sorts by a silent submission to the invasive American culture through movies, series, good novels, inventive music, scientific research, social media, enormous GAFAs, monstrous algorithms and more features. Like Teheranis, Porteños, Calcutans, Milanese, inhabitants of Mexico, Lagos, tel-Aviv, Beijing or Cairo, all urban Europeans are moved by America's stamina and panic-stricken as well. All have good reasons to keep an eye on this particular electoral process. It is likely that the 2020 American election has been an even bigger stake for the Iranians, the Syrians, the Yemenites, the Chinese, the British, the Mexicans, the Vanuatu Islanders and many more citizens of the blue planet. The stake is still high. In the turmoil triggered by global warming… or is it by the choking of biodiversity? or by the impending threat of vicious terrorisms? by the fierce competition with China for world leadership? by cryptic viruses down-locking billions of humans? or by scarcity of water coming next? in this time of fast turbulence, better keep this trumpian red-hot insecurity out of the way. I would say that French people being diffident and pessimistic, the way they see things now suggests to cross fingers that the big fright is over for a while. And keep on playing accordion.

Published in Eastern Review #4,

Kolkata, West Bengal, India


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Marc Hatzfeld, Sociologue des marges sociales
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