There are few countries so far away and yet so historically close. France and the United States share a long history, from the War of Independence to two World Wars. However, even with this common ground, the perception of each country by the other is often reduced to stereotypes: The Eiffel Tower and Hollywood only to mention the best ones. For both of these countries, 2012 is an election year and it is time to know a little bit more about how each country perceives the democracy of the other.
French media does not focus very much on the US election. They concentrate on the big moments: the primaries launch in Iowa and New Hampshire, sometimes Super Tuesday, the conventions, Election Day and the January 20 inauguration. The American soft power has made each of these big moments a part of a ritual on which the foreign media can capitalise and sell to their audience as American folklore; French media does not escape this practice.
They also concentrate on the issues that underline the cultural divide between the two sides of the Atlantic. Many of these issues are seen as fundamental and obvious for the French but are considered controversial in the United States. The fact that issues such social security, women’s rights and capital punishment are controversial in the States is unfathomable to the French and most Europeans.
Another focus of French media are the echoing problems France knows too but does not treat in the same way, for example immigration. Lately, French media categorized Senate-hopeful Todd Akin’s remarks on ‘legitimate rape’ as medieval. Similarly, a few years ago, under the Bush administration, the project to tighten Mexico-US border security with a wall was seen as delusional while still questioning our own approach to immigration.
This kind of cultural gap is perpetuated in many ways. First, the superficial treatment of American politics by the French media forces them to simplify all debates, all policies within a single idea understandable by people who do not know very much of American political culture. But moreover, the biased perception of American politics in France is due to the great difference of our political climates. Without any doubts, America is much more socially conservative than France. Democrats, which are the most liberal in that matter, do not unanimously support gay marriage as the French Left does (by a huge percentage). On the other end of the political spectrum, there is no real French equivalent to the social program of the Tea Party: the more conservative party, the Front National (FN), has a platform close the traditional Republican Party, as they propose to limit the right to abortion (but do not want to ban it) and strongly defend traditional marriage among other issues. Economically, the gap between France and America is even greater. No party in America is defending any social-democrat policy. The pro-business ideology in the country makes both parties close to the liberal Right, a small faction in France.
In fact, it is on international policy that the French and the American parties are the most symmetrical. The Left remains a more cooperative, pro-UN ideology. The Right, following the neo-conservative wave, defended a more realist approach, aimed at protecting the Western World and promoting democracy, particularly in the Middle East. However, even within this context, the distinction needs to be nuanced as President Obama regularly adopted realism when dealing with foreign affairs (as in the Bin Laden case).
But overall President Obama’s platform is much more understandable to Europeans than that of Mitt Romney. For this reason Obama is very well liked in France. However, there is more than his platform that gathers him popularity in the country. As France is seeing the American politics with a distance, it also allows us to examine American history in the long run and not affected by short-term tendencies because, frankly, the French are not affected by the day to day affects of policy making like US citizens. Barack Obama is thus still enjoying the wave of popularity and hope that brought to the Presidency in 2008 in the eyes of the French. He also profits from the comparison with his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who garnered a lot of dislike for the United States when he continued with the war in Iraq despite the French veto in the UN.
Finally, the campaign is not drawing much interest in France, except maybe when it is time for criticism. For example, to the French, the amount of money invested in the Presidential campaign is absolutely shocking. Comparatively, the two main candidates in the French election only spent around €20M each (around $25M). Also, the influence of the Super-PACs and their weight of negative publicity are a completely foreign concept in France. Even more than in the United States, these ads are seen as a low form of democracy, such as campaign finance is seen as perverting the fair access for all to run for office.
It is important to note that the American election is also a source of inspiration for French politics and French campaign managers who have copied strategies from their American counterparts. For example, the control of the candidates’ image has increased in recent years and most communication mishaps are now prevented. But French campaigns still keep a taste of their own: Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposition to hold three debates instead of one (like the Americans) was not taken well by the electorate. One of the many signs that France still has its own political traditions, no matter how connected these two countries continue to become.