PARIS — The more things change, as the French are fond of saying, the more they remain the same.
But things have really changed here in France, at least since the long ago days of my youth in the later 1950’s and early 1960’s, and they are no longer the same.
In those bygone days, France was still deep in shock from its disaster in World War II. The nation was closed in on itself, completely self-absorbed, racked by postwar guilt and rent by mutual recriminations.
The one fixed point for the French was their national individuality and unique, sharply etched character. They found a measure of solace in being resolutely French and abjuring the outside world.
Most French refused to speak English, a process they found unworthy, undignified, and even painful. The British were hated for stabbing France in the back early in the war by pulling their troops out at Dunquerque and sinking part of the French Fleet. France deeply resented being ordered about by the United States and treated like a third-rate nation.
France was glum, grumpy and depressed. On top of the malaise, the communists were threatening to take over the government. In the early 1960’s, France even began quietly refurbishing and upgunning the Maginot Line forts in fear of the mighty, 100-division Soviet Red Army.
That was yesterday. Today, the new globalized generation of young and even middle-aged French enjoys speaking English and often does so at the slightest excuse. France is becoming bilingual. Even France’s entry into the Eurosong competition is, mon dieu!, in English. It gets increasingly hard to speak French here in Paris.
Paris’ notorious taxi drivers, who once sought to install metal plates in their rear seats to electrocute unruly or, more likely, low-tipping passengers, have become shockingly polite. Retailers and waiters actually seem pleased to see you. Americans are again welcome. A young man offered me his seat on the Metro. French seem to have discovered a new happy pill.
Wine and bread consumption, once staples of French life, are way down. Oppressed French smokers have been forced out of cafes into the cruel street. Young French seem to live on predigested junk food. The wonderful old smoky, black and white France of my youth, with her violent riots, Edith Piaf and Yves Montand, army plots, silly Left Bank intellectuals, and weird little cars like the Panhard and Simca, has vanished.
French have been paying a lot of attention to their new president, Nicholas Sarkozy, and his smashing second wife, Carla Bruni, who is widely regarded as a huge asset for “Sarko.” But right now, French and other Europeans are absolutely fascinated by the US presidential race. During two weeks of TV and radio broadcasting in Paris, the number one question I was asked is who will win the US primaries and November vote.
The president of the United States has at least as much if not more influence over many nations than their own governments. So, I’ve always favored a one-tenth vote for all non-Americans.
If this were the case, then Barack Obama would win in a landslide. Like North Americans, most Europeans really don’t know much about the experience-light senator, but what they see, they like “beaucoup.” You can feel a passion here for Obama that is quite remarkable, and an earnest hope that America may soon return to being its old, pre-Bush, pre-9/11 self.
Obama is wildly popular because he is, of course, the non-Bush. But so is Hillary Clinton, yet she inspires surprisingly little support even though husband Bill, for reasons that elude me, was widely admired abroad. Hillary is regarded simply as an avatar of the Clinton political machine which, however formidable, is seen as empty of substance, and dedicated only to the relentless pursuit of power and money.
The three Americans public figures most respected internationally are Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore. They are widely seen as representing many of America’s best qualities. They are also a potent antidote to the yahoos, holy rollers and totalitarian neoconservative ideologues who hijacked the Republican Party — my lifelong party — and blackened America’s name around the globe.
Obama is seen abroad as the candidate who can end the shameful Bush era and return America to a moderate, productive role in world affairs. He is expected to end the Iraq War and Bush’s militarized foreign policy, and reintegrate the United States into the company of law-respecting, environmentally conscious nations, of whom the European Union is now the leader.
Obama comes across to Europeans as dignified, decent, eloquent, and truthful, qualities notably lacking in either Bush and Dick Cheney who too often seem to symbolize America’s cruder instincts and its wallowing in synthetic patriotism. Just a few days ago, for example, Republicans accused Obama of not being patriotic because he does not wear an American flag on his lapel.
Much of the world would hail and admire America for electing a man of color, but even more so, one who appears to capture so much of what is great and admirable about the United States.
There are fears here the bitter Hillary-Obama contest may ruin both candidates, leading to four more years of Bush under John McCain. But it may also benefit Obama. He needs to toughen up before facing the ferocious Republican attack machine that sunk war veteran John Kerry’s campaign under a torrent of “Swiftboat” lies about his military service in Vietnam. John McCain is a gentleman, but not so Republican strategist Carl Rove’s waiting character assassins.
Obama could sharply alter America’s highly negative image created by Bush & Co. as a determined enemy of the Muslim world. Not because his father was Muslim, but because of his image of fairness and sensible foreign policy proposals calling for open dialogue with the Muslim World, including Iran, instead of confrontation. If Americans want to repair relations with the Muslim world, electing Obama is a good way to start.
It’s distressing listening to the rich John McCain and equally rich Clintons scourge Obama an “elitist” because he is intelligent, articulate, and poised. Next, they will brand him as, “too French.”