Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Other Side of the Curtain: Celebrating American History-Making in Paris

It’s always fun to celebrate one’s homegrown customs in a foreign place – especially Paris, where native residents consider an invitation to participate an opportunity to learn about their friends who come from abroad. Holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day, Canada Day, Independence Day, and both the American and Canadian Thanksgivings are viewed as somewhat exotic – traditions that are entirely Anglophone. Taking part in one of these events gives Parisians the chance to indulge in one of their favorite pastimes: pontificating about culture, history, politics…and of course, la cuisine.

In a way, American elections are like one extended national celebration, the country’s size and scope dictating the need for a process that lasts much longer than those held by other international powerhouses. (Although geographically larger, Canada, for example, held a federal election several weeks before its neighbor to the south, with the rather humdrum campaign lasting just under a month.) In the United States, the plot twists, impassioned speeches and mounting suspense accompanying the nation’s climb to elect its next president are much like the blockbuster movies produced on its sunny west coast: action-packed, grandiose and, try as one might, impossible to avoid. The difference this time, however, was that while only U.S. citizens had the right to vote, those of voting age in the rest of the world followed the campaign as if it had been their own.

In France, the press had elected Barack Obama long before he delivered his historical speech at the podium in Chicago. Throwing neutrality by the wayside, the country’s prime time anchormen and anchorwomen barely smothered their gleeful smiles every time he inched upward in the polls. The week before the big day, there wasn’t a publication to be found bearing McCain’s mug on the cover, and the Parisian métro resembled a gallery expo dedicated to the charismatic black politician as commuters held their Obama-laden newspapers up in front of them with pride. (There was, in fact, a real exposition dedicated to him in Paris’s 11th arrondissement.) Even those running the press stands and magazine shops got in on the mania, crossing their fingers and calling out phrases of hope and encouragement every time they sold an item covering Barack, not unlike they would before a World Cup Soccer match where France actually had a chance of winning. Le Courrier International – a weekly published by Le Monde – announced its full support of the Democratic contender, running a heartfelt letter from the editor, a full-page, four-color pro-Obama house ad, and two issues with the now president-elect on the cover: ‘Dare They Elect Him?’ (‘Oseront-ils l’élire ?’) challenged the journal the week before Election Day. And, when they indeed dared, a headline that requires no translation: ‘YES!’

While right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy has been dubbed France’s most Americanized leader yet, the razzle-dazzle of the American elections left the one that took place here in May 2007 in the dust. Sure, Sarko played (and continues to play) the showman, and the French campaign featured the kind of photo ops that are de rigueur across the ocean, but rather unfamiliar in the Fifth Republic. (It was the first time that a politician invited a crew to film him during his daily jog, raising the eyebrows of the privacy-cherishing French.) Pundits here may say the same things as they host a long election night, but they don’t have access to the same toys: there are few blinking video screens, no large-scale maps of the country that light up as voting stations turn in their results, no confusing statistics comparing the popular and electoral vote (no need), definitely no holograms, and while France has its ration of A-list television hosts, there’s no real equivalent to Wolf Blitzer.

So when several Frenchmen decided to stay up all night accompanying a gaggle of North Americans to a pub on the Left Bank for pints and an eyeful of CNN among American voters living abroad, their intention was clear: they wanted to see how these people spent Election Night…was it all that different?

In a word, yes, even if the core event was similar to any democratic election. Because when Americans make history they do it up right, and to the New World, that necessitates the blinking lights, ridiculous technology and, as they’d say on Broadway, all that jazz.