International Business Times spoke with a Paris-based expert on French politics to explore how the battle between incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger is playing in France.
Douglas Yates is assistant professor of political science at the American University of Paris and professor at the American Graduate School in Paris.
IB TIMES: Do you sense a great deal of interest in the 2012 U.S. presidential election among the French public? Or has it waned since 2008?
YATES: Yes, the French press have been covering it every day, sending special reporters to the United States to cover the campaign, and sending television crews to report daily from the campaign trail.
IB TIMES: French president Francois Hollande likely supports Obama, but has he said anything about the Obama-Romney race, or is he discouraged from making any such comments?
YATES: Hollande has avoided giving too strong of a support for Obama, in part, because the polls have been so close that it would be imprudent to do so. (He is a cautious man by nature, not a gambler, like his predecessor.)
IB TIMES: When Obama was elected in 2008, how did the French media and public react?
YATES: The French media was relieved. It was the end of the [George W.] Bush era. Obama was also the first African-American president, a precedent not lost on multi-cultural France (which still has tremendous under-representation of racial minorities in the corridors of power).
Most of all, the Obama phenomenon changed the feeling of the French about their allies on the other side of the Atlantic. Obama indeed brought "hope."
IB TIMES: What does France (media, public, government) think of Obama now?
YATES: The vision of Obama as a “disappointment” has migrated over here, although the message is usually presented in the media as Obama being perceived as a disappointment by Americans.
The French press publishes articles critical of Obama, but they are not scathing, like the ones on Bush. Obama is an American president, and therefore is sometimes held responsible for mistakes made by American troops, American corporations, American individuals, etc., rather than for his own actions.
French television simply presents the telegenic image that Obama radiates. I would not consider the French television news coverage as anything but flattering of Obama.
This may explain why public opinion polls still show Obama being supported by 70-80 percent of the French.
IB TIMES: How did Sarkozy get along with Obama? Has Sarkozy made any comments about the U.S. election?
YATES: Sarkozy was strongly pro-American, and therefore he was willing to work with Obama despite coming from the other side of the line. Both men were near enough to the center that they never expressed ideological differences, anyway.
Sarkozy has recently been spending a lot of time in New York, which is his home away from home. He gives speeches, earns consulting fees, and has returned to practice as an attorney (although this is more a lobbying function than a litigation one.) He has not made any comments about the U.S. election, following the custom that former French presidents should avoid making controversial statements that can affect French foreign policy negatively. The U.S. is too important a player on the international scene.
IB TIMES: What does French media think of Romney?
YATES: They are still discovering him, although the daily coverage of the campaign has brought most of the standard information (his wealth, his family, and his Mormon religion) into the public spotlight. Since public opinion is so strongly in favor of Obama, it is probably fair to say that he has been filtered through the prism of Obama, and therefore is perceived as less charismatic, less intelligent, and less progressive than he may, in fact, be. One thing that might be worth mentioning is that there is a large section of the French public which is 'pro-American in an anti-French way.' They use America as a way of criticizing their own country. For these kinds of people, Romney could receive strong support.
IB TIMES: Does the Socialist Party of France believe it is analogous with the U.S. Democratic Party?
YATES: No, the Socialists in France still maintain their leftist credentials, and label the Democrats as "liberals." They do however recognize that the Democratic party is on the Left of the left-right spectrum in the United States, but they perceive the American center as farther to the Right.
IB TIMES: Similarly, do the “conservatives” in the France (Sarkozy's UMP) feel a kinship with U.S. Republicans, or do they feel that the GOP in the U.S. is too far-right-wing and has too much of a religious focus?
YATES: As I said, Sarkozy was pro-American. In fact, he was called "Sarko l'Américain" in the French press. But this does not mean that all members of his grand coalition known as the UMP (formed during a merger of the Gaullist right and numerous center-right parties during the Jacques Chirac era) are equally Atlanticist.*
Perhaps the most important feature of the UMP is its being grounded in "Gaullism" which is a political ideology that revolves around French grandeur, independence and nationalism. The Americans are threatening in this worldview. The Republicans may be on the right of the American ideological spectrum, but the whole thrust of Charles De Gaulle was to liberate France from her allies.
IB TIMES: Does France have any real “stake” in who wins the U.S. presidential race?
YATES: Yes, if Romney wins, this will place France in an uncomfortable position on numerous foreign policy issues. For the moment, the government of Francois Hollande can enjoy the pleasant atmosphere created by Obama, which is winding down the two wars, and conducting American foreign policy along multilateral lines. In contrast, Romney promises to return to American unilateralism. This means France will be out of the picture.
IB TIMES: Politically and culturally, do the French (people, media, government) feel closer to the U.S. now than in previous years? Or are the culture and language barriers still too high?
YATES: We must make a distinction between French 'high culture' and French 'low culture.' The former is usually critical of the vulgarity of American popular culture, while the latter is a prolific consumer of it.
But overall, if one were to speak globally, one could say that French public opinion of the United States government has improved during the Obama administration, while its consumption of American popular culture has remained constant.
*A philosophy of cooperation among Western European and North American nations.