Guilt over race may play role in French Obamania


VIEW FROM AFAR .. FRANCE:IN WHAT may be the world record for Obamania, 93 per cent of French people polled at the beginning of this month said they would vote for Democratic candidate Barack Obama if they could. This compares to a European average of 69 per cent, writes Lara Marlowe

For at least the past three elections, the French would have voted Democrat. Axel Poniatowski, president of the foreign affairs committee at the French National Assembly, recently claimed the ruling right- wing UMP was the equivalent of the Democratic party in the US.

In 2004, French pollsters found 87 per cent of their compatriots supported John Kerry, against 13 per cent for George W Bush.

In 2000, 59 per cent preferred Al Gore, compared to 41 per cent for Bush.

"There is a funny side to the French infatuation with Obama," says former foreign minister and international consultant Hubert Védrine. "There's a sort of delirium of political correctness."

Védrine cites three reasons for French Obamania: massive rejection of Bush; the fact that nothing in the personality of John McCain or Sarah Palin appeals to the French, not even McCain's record as a prisoner of war in Vietnam; and finally, although the French know little of Obama, "they project onto him the idea that it would be great to have a black American president. They think he'd understand the rest of the world, and behave like a European multilateralist."

French leaders of every political hue have expressed admiration for Obama. Though the Élysée never takes an official stand on another country's election, French president Nicolas Sarkozy received Obama more warmly than McCain.

"Sarkozy says, 'He's my buddy'," notes Védrine. "He was so pleased Obama came to see him, and didn't go to see the socialists, that he must have said 10 times, 'He's my buddy'.

"Sarkozy says he knows Obama well, though they've only spent a few minutes together. The socialists were hurt that Obama didn't call on them."

The weekly magazine Politiscatalogued support for Obama within the right-wing government.

Prime minister François Fillon called him "a young, black, rising star, whose charisma is impressive". Environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet says he's "a beautiful surprise, something really new, a burst of energy". Laurent Wauquiez, the minister for employment, attended the Democratic convention in Denver.

Centrist politician François Bayrou says he belongs to "the same political family" as Obama.

Communist leader Marie-George Buffet looks forward to the "important moment" when "a black man attains such high responsibility".

Franco-American relations have improved enormously since France vociferously opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sarkozy is the most pro-American president in French history.

"Today, France supports all of the Bush administration's policies. On Iran, we tow the hardest line in Europe. There's nothing to improve," says Védrine.

"Ironically, the only problem is that the administration that aligned itself with Bush will have to shift its alignment [if Obama wins]. It may put them in contradiction with their own positions, for example on Iran."

French Obamania is also in blatant contradiction with the almost non-existent representation of blacks in French politics. Politis magazine speculates that, by supporting Obama, the French have found a no-cost, no-risk way to assuage their guilt. There is one black deputy among 555 representing continental France in the National Assembly; zero black senators from continental France, out of some 300; a handful of black mayors among 36,000.

Like Obama, Harlem Désir, the founder of SOS Racisme, is handsome, intelligent and well-educated, but he's a socialist MEP, without a bat's chance in hell of reaching the Élysée Palace.

No one is sure how many blacks there are in France, because law prohibits a census on ethnic criteria. (Estimates range from three to five million, out of 61 million.) Even the word "race" is taboo, because of shame over anti- Jewish laws and the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews during the second World War.

Sociologist Pap N'diaye has coined the term "melanic order" to describe the political hierarchy in France. Blacks are at the bottom of the ladder, those of Arab origin just above them, and whites on top. "We in France are, in terms of race, where we were in terms of gender 40 years ago," says N'diaye.