France's Obama fixation

Daniel Nichanian
9 March 2009

It is not surprising that Barack Obama's election has dramatically transformed the way French citizens think of the United States. That story has been told many times before, if not about France than about other countries and their fascinations with the American president. Yet, in an unexpected mirror effect, it is France's vision of itself that is being altered by Obama's victory.  

During the past eight years, the French thought of their homeland as far superior to what they saw as a death penalty-loving bastion of reactionary forces; now, they celebrate the United States for its new-found maturity, an elevated politics that many fear is unattainable in France. The comfort of knowing that a Frenchman with George W Bush's politics would find himself dismissed as a dangerous extremist has given way to an often-voiced anxiety: Could a "French Obama" win a presidential election?

This is not just a rhetorical question; it has real significance in the French context. Obama's French enthusiasts inevitably distort his real profile and platform in their effort to frame his victory for their own purposes. The parts of Obama's story that his admirers invoke and the themes they emphasize provide a window into the glaring shortfalls of French society. Obama is a cipher for the Left's inability to sell its ideas; the rigid structure of political parties and stultifying hold of political elites; and the dreadful lack of minority figures in leadership positions.

A socialist icon

One group of Obama admirers can be found in the Socialist Party (PS). The country's leading left-wing party has not won a presidential election since 1988 and a legislative election since 1997. Asphyxiated in recent years by the hyperactivity of right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy and unable to counter the spread of conservative ideas, the PS has been in survival mode for much of the past decade. 

Socialist leaders are now hoping to take advantage of Obama's victory to bolster their own cause and get back into France's political game. To regain power, the PS must learn how to make its platform look more appealing to lower and middle class voters. And what better way to do that than to insist the party's proposals are similar to those of the popular and emblematically progressive American president? Daniel Nichanian is a freelance writer and journalist. He blogs at Campaign Diaries.  

"Restoration of the power of the public sector, intervention in the markets, efforts to restrict free trade for the benefit of employment," marveled party spokesperson Benoît Hamon in an interview with the French newspaper La Croix back in March 2008. "Each of these actions is considered archaic in the European Union but Obama demonstrates that they are in fact suited to our times." 

Of course, such an assertion requires the cherry-picking of a few of Obama's proposals that have a progressive cast, portraying them as far more left-of-centre than they actually are. This grey distortion was glaringly evident over the past few weeks, as the PS repeatedly invoked Obama's relatively centrist recovery plan to argue that the current economic crisis demanded a leftist response.  

In touting the PS's counter-proposal to Sarkozy's stimulus, Hamon took pride in the fact that the Socialists' proposal is "in tune with that which Barack Obama is doing for his country;" he also defended his call for the state to take a seat on banks' board of directors by portraying Obama as a strong proponent of nationalization. Meanwhile, party head Martine Aubry called on Sarkozy to follow in Obama's footsteps. "When the issue of capping CEO salaries comes up, Obama is on the move," she said in a recent interview with Le Parisien. "I'm waiting for Sarkozy to do the same." 

Obama's actual policy statements might not be as leftist as Aubry and Hamon's characterizations, and his commitment to saving the capitalist system is probably closer to Sarkozy's vow to "re-found" it. But that doesn't stop PS officials from suggesting that the American rejection of conservative ideas heralds a left-ward shift in French politics.  

The grassroots hero

While Aubry and Hamon strive to depict Obama as a socialist in the hope of reviving France's left-wing discourse, others are more interested in drawing upon the narrative of Obama as an anti-establishment, grassroots candidate to denounce the rigidity of the French system.

France's political life is dominated by a monolithic ruling class - overwhelmingly white, sharing similar resumes, of the same age; most have gone through the same top school, the National School of Administration (ENA). Politicians hold on to power for decades, blocking the renewal of elites and preventing new generations from entering positions of responsibility.  

How could reformers concerned with such stagnation not look towards Obama? Whatever the American president's actual commitment to broadening the democratic process, he inspired millions of first-time voters, defeated better-established candidates and bypassed traditional structures to engage directly with the body public - all feats many worry would not be feasible in France. 

The dispute over which strand of reform to prioritize - policy or process - rocked the PS during its heated leadership fight last fall. One faction, led by Hamon, contended that the party should radicalize its economic platform; another camp, led by the party's 2007 presidential nominee Ségolène Royal, advocated for procedural changes like the expansion of the party's membership base and making primaries open to the public at large rather than only to dues-paying activists.  

Royal's narrow loss in the PS's leadership vote hardened her determination to portray herself as an opponent of the political establishment. Much of this is opportunistic, of course - Royal is a longtime politician who graduated from ENA and served in the governmental cabinet as early as 1992 - and she was mocked mercilessly recently for suggesting that Obama had copied her campaign. But there is indisputably shared parentage between Royal's objectives and some of Obama's rhetoric; she built her presidential campaign around participative and inclusive forums meant to draw voters in and allow them to shape her platform.  

Her proposals found their echo in a 137-page report released earlier this year by Terra Nova, a left-leaning think thank that sent a study group to the United States to observe the presidential election. In obvious awe of Obama, the group issued a series of recommendations aimed at revitalizing French democracy by loosening the organization of parties and improving political communication. For instance, the report called for the constitution of mass parties to replace France's relatively small political organizations, whose power is held by a core group of activists.  

"This would allow political leaders to emancipate themselves from the parties' structures," touted Pauline Peretz, a professor at the Université de Nantes and a member of the study group. "A more direct relationship can be built with party members and with the electorate," she added, alluding to a model of "participative democracy." 

Mass parties have pitfalls of their own, however. Critics worry that dramatically expanding the scope of parties would dilute their ideological substance and intellectual liveliness, risking their transformation into mere instruments of the ambitions of politicians. But toying with party structure is only one of many possible ways with which to reform the system. What no one disputes - and what Obama's victory makes all the clearer - is that citizens must be more directly involved in the political process.  

France's monochrome politics

This is the compromise institutionalized political parties have to make to ensure that they are representative of the country's diversity - whether in terms of gender, class or race. Obama's election offers a unique opportunity to highlight French politics's striking monochromatism.  

Asked whether France could conceivably elect a minority president, Patrice Schoendorff, who runs a pro-Obama organization in Lyon and who co-founded the website Diversité News, did not hesitate. "It's impossible! We are at least 30 years behind," he said. "We might not even have a minority with enough standing to jump in the field. We can't even imagine having a minority as big city mayor."  

This judgment might sound harsh, but one statistic is enough to substantiate Schoendorff's analysis: In the most recent elections, only two minority politicians were elected in the 555 parliamentary districts that make up mainland France. (There are 22 seats reserved for France's overseas territories.) 

The challenges minorities face extend well beyond the electoral sphere. Cavernous socio-economic inequality is combined with France's failure to adequately integrate millions of second and third-generation immigrants; the situation revealed its explosive potential during the 2005 riots in the banlieues, the predominantly lower-class suburbs that house a significant minority population. 

With Obama's victory, French activists believe they have been provided an opening to broach sensible subjects and empower minority groups in France. Alfa'Dev, a neighborhood association based in Argenteuil, a Paris suburb, was anxious to seize the opportunity and installed a giant screen in city hall on the day of Obama's Inauguration. 

The viewing party made for a powerful event. Back in 2005, Argenteuil was the stage of a tense confrontation between Sarkozy and the banlieusards. Sarkozy, who was then Interior Minister, has been reluctant to visits the banlieues since then, aggravating their divorce from mainstream French society and politics. Now, Argenteuil's youth have turned towards a foreign president for the inspiration they cannot find in the French one. 

Michel Sabaly, who runs Alfa'Dev, underlined Obama's appeal in the impoverished suburb. "We want to adapt America's 'yes we can' to say that if Obama could work to become who he is, we should be able to do the same in France," he said. "People from the banlieues who have similar stories can believe that work, perseverance, and seriousness are assets that can lead someone who started out with very little to someplace successful."  

What makes it particularly difficult to translate social empowerment into political change in France is that the condition of minorities is shaped by the country's colonial past and by recent migratory waves. Unlike African-Americans in the United States, French minorities are still often perceived as foreigners. According to Esther Benbassa, a professor at Sorbonne's Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, this limits the possibility of a mass movement like America's campaign for civil rights or of an organization working on behalf of an entire community. "Here, we are stuck in an individualist understanding of power," she said. "Those who come from immigrant families and want to reach influence are fighting for themselves." 

With advocacy groups weaker than they often are in the United States, it is no surprise that political parties have failed to step up. But with the election of Obama, the political class is being forced to recognize how far behind France finds itself. Obama's victory is generating enough pressure to force onto the table thorny issues like affirmation action or the need to overturn a ban on collecting ethnic and racial statistics.  

Neither of these two proposals enjoys the unanimous support of minority rights groups, but they should at least be debated. France's commitment to jacobin values has long prevented ethnicity from being acknowledged as a relevant category of public life and as a potential source of inequality, and the ban on ethnic statistics denies us even a basic knowledge of the socio-economic condition of minority groups.  

When imported into the French context, Obama might only be a symbol - what Benbassa deplores as a "gadget" politicians use to show their commitment to reform - but he is undoubtedly a useful one. He has got the reticent, recalcitrant French finally talking about their own problems.

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