Friday, January 23, 2009

American Abroad

There is a change in the air. It started after the election. I've lived in France since 1972. During the Nixon years, when you said you were American, people expected you to explain American involvement in Vietnam. They weren't concerned whether you were pro or anti; being an American meant you represented the country.
Ford? Well, his presidency didn't seem to affect us. You could say you were American and people didn't seem to judge you. They were, of course, curious about how the Watergate scandal could have gone so far as to make a president go away. They were amused by Ford's bumbles.
I don't remember any negative effects from the Carter years. I don't think the French remember Carter at all. When talking about Obama's family, they keep saying it's the first time there are young children in the White House since Kennedy. Amy Carter went totally unnoticed. And I guess they don't think Chelsea Clinton was "young" enough.
When Reagan became president, you got all kinds of looks. How could Americans vote for an actor? So, whether you were for Reagan or not, you found yourself explaining that he had also been governor and so on. There was a kind of anti-American sentiment in the air. As the US had a conservative government, the French voted in Mitterand.
Then Bush Sr. came along, but that was just a continuation of the Reagan years. The Gulf War more or less united everyone, but there was a feeling that the only coalition country that was going to get any business after the war was the US so you felt a little resentment when you said you were American.
Clinton years were pretty friendly. You'd say you were American and people would ask how we could be so naïve and be so upset about a little lie. It was like explaining Watergate. You had to explain how the government worked. It doesn't matter -- no one ever asks you -- what you think of the situation. People just assume that you are either the average American they see in the news and don't undeerstand or that you have adopted their views. They don't ask you.. This can be troublesome.
Most people I dealt with disliked Bush Jr., even before his first term. They felt he had no culture and no knowledge of the world beyond the US borders. It so happens, that's how I felt. But no one asked me. I received all the anti-Bush jokes in my e-mail and critical comments during lunch. By the time re-election came around in 2004, and the boss sent an anti-Bush joke to everyone in the office, I reminded him that he did not know my political opinion, nor the opinions of our colleagues in the US office, and that he shouldn't be sending that kind of stuff to everyone. He gave me a really strange look until I let him know that I happened to agree with him, but did not think it was good etiquette.
During the campaign, I think most of the people I dealt with could not imagine anyone being pro-Republican. Once McCain was the sure candidate, no one said anything against him except that he was too old. However, once Palin was selected, they were incredulous. So was I. They became pro-Obama fairly early in the campaign, but didn't think he'd ever be the candidate. The big change, though, is that when you say you are American, they look at you and smile and congratulate you for electing Obama. Again, it doesn't matter if you did or didn't. They just assume you did. No problem for me, but I imagine Republicans who voted for McCain, here, feel funny.
Paul and I went to the joint AAWE/AARO inauguration party on Tuesday. I don't remember being excited about an inauguration before, to the point of wanting to share the moment. Anyway, we went to this thing and Paul was not the only Frenchman. I observed them watching the procedings. In France the separation of church and state means that church (God) has no place at all in state events -- no invocation, no swearing on a bible, no "God bless France". So that religeous aspect never ceases to amaze them. The whole inauguration celebration is confusing. In France, the new president takes office a few days after the election. There is no prolonged transition period. So, here we Americans are again -- explaining.
I don't know if the French are especially curious. I wonder if Americans who have foreign neighbors are so curious about their elections or their government processes. I think that this curiosity is good. Right now, the people I am in contact with are very happy with the US. There's a kind of euphoria about Obama. That's nice. They smile when you say you're American.

1 comment:

LeGreg said...

American politics get reflected and deformed in France, definitely.
On the other side of the pond (french guy in the US), I don't think the typical american I meet know a little thing about the french politics (or that they care beyond even broader generalization than what french people do for american politics).

Apparently in rallies during the elections, common people acted kind of surprised when Giuliani, Mccain, Obama all spoke highly of french president Nicolas Sarkozy. <- that one would have left me perplexed too ;).