In Nyons, they believe Obama has the savoir faire

By Patricia Fieldsteel

NYONS, France — The Villager’s associate editor recently asked if I could write about the French view of the U.S. presidential election. Well, France is a big country. Yes, it’s smaller than Texas, but still. … Provence is also big, ditto Nyons, a major city in these parts, population 6,900. So we settled on the Old Town of Nyons, a few hundred. 

I set out, notebook in hand, dog at end of leash in the other, Obama buttons left at home. Because I live here, I already knew most people would be for Obama; it’s no secret the French detest Bush and Bush-like policies. 

In my anecdotal, nonscientific sampling, the people with whom I spoke ranged in age from 16 to 80-plus and were of varying educational and economic levels. Of the adults, the majority were not university educated and few could be described as financially well-off. I did not ask whether they viewed themselves as left, right or centrist in France, though some volunteered. Everyone I spoke to, save one, was for Obama — though only one was confident he could win. (The interviews took place in mid-September.)

I began with my neighbor, Françoise-Marie, an elderly spinster who prides herself on being a staunch Socialist. Obama was maybe the better candidate, she explained, but she could never vote for a black person. But then, she didn’t vote for the Socialist presidential candidate, Segolène Royale, in the last election simply because Royale’s a woman. A few others may have shared her sentiments, but rather than say, they simply gave me a sphincter-mouth smile and said they didn’t want to be interviewed.

Several people, all under 30, used the phrase “rendezvous avec histoire” to describe their feelings about the Nov. 4 vote. As Jean-Luc, a 23-year-old sports reporter put it, Obama is in a position to give hope to Americans and to Europeans; if he wins, maybe we can all work together again. Several mentioned their fear of China’s rising power and the need for Europeans and Americans to be united. 

Everyone was frightened about the disastrous and ballooning world economic crisis, what the French call the diminishing “pouvoir d’achat” (purchasing power) and global warming. This is an agricultural region. Farmers and local industries that have been profitable for centuries — wine, lavender and honey production — have been badly hit.

Many blame Bush and his disregard for the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and also blame him for the surge in oil prices.

Jean-Luc echoed what many said: They aren’t anti-American, just anti-Bush, that their disillusion with the U.S.A. became profound after Bush was re-elected. We didn’t think it possible, several said. Most expressed the conviction America as a world power and civilization has been declining, some putting it back to the Vietnam era, others the last eight years. Jean-Luc was the only person certain Obama will win; he thinks America is ready for a black president as well as for a change away from Bush’s policies. All expressed absolute horror that the richest country on earth still has no universal healthcare coverage, a right everyone in France, citizen or not, takes as a given. 

Particularly among the Muslims I interviewed, there’s the sense Obama’s election could lend hope in France for possible equality one day for Arabs and Africans, the majority of whom came here from former French colonies. Their children may have been born in France, but most French view them as foreigners, second-class citizens. As an Algerian restaurateur whose children were all born in France said, maybe during the lifetime of his yet-unborn grandchildren, there will be Arabs in high positions in France. 

I sometimes shop at a small family-run Tunisian épicerie (deli/grocery) near my house. On a recent Sunday, I was there stocking up on local garlic, sold by the kilo in enormous bunches, the stalks still attached. Salimah, the shop owners’ 18-year-old daughter wants to be a lawyer. She is the first in her family to go to college. She commented on my Obama button and proudly showed me hers, for which she’d paid 4 euros out of her summer waitress salary. Her eyes sparkled as she spoke about Obama and the hope he represented. She and her 16-year-old brother Salah were anxious to hear what I thought; they’d both carefully studied American history, particularly the civil-rights era. Everything happens in America first, then maybe much later it can happen here, they said. Both emphasized as did many others, however, that they weren’t simply for Obama because he’s young, gifted and black, but because he’s also the stronger candidate. 

Among adults older than 50, one or two said they were inclined toward Obama simply because they objected more to McCain, who everyone felt was just another Bush. Several found McCain too old, out of touch and with nothing to offer; all were wary of his military background. A brocanteur (antique and bric-a-brac dealer) who was awarded the Legion of Honor for heroism in the Indochina War said, “Being a military hero doesn’t mean you know how to govern.” 

Only three people knew the name of the vice-presidential candidate running with Obama and were familiar with Biden’s background, stating his international experience is important. The others said they had no understanding (outside of the obvious) of the V.P.’s role and no interest, though several felt Hillary in the V.P. slot might have strengthened Obama’s chances, despite their distrust of her as “too political and corrupt.” When I mentioned Sarah Palin, everyone laughed, nervously — an “idiot,” a “moron,” but ultimately “terrifying.” A few admitted they thought she was maybe, sadly, typical of most Americans, “all those people in the middle,” as they put it.

Everyone agreed the Bush Doctrine is a disaster, that the United States’ current policy of waging war around the globe has got to stop — now. The only way they see that happening is if Obama wins. Mr. Charmer across the street pointed out America has never had a foreign war on its own soil the way other countries have. Americans are terrified of war at home, he explained; that is why they have to make wars everywhere else. Jean-Luc mentioned how warfare has changed — no longer are wars waged by nations but by one ethnic group against another or one terrorist group against another group or category of people. Many felt an American president from a minority group would be at an advantage in bringing disparate and warring peoples, many of whom are nonwhite, together at the negotiating table. That, at least, is their hope.

Whoever the next American president is, everyone agreed he will inherit a nightmare that most likely will take decades to undo. The older people were, the less optimistic their expectations, even with a potential Obama victory. Are Americans ready for change? Probably they are too scared; they would rather stick with what they know, even if it’s hell. Are they ready for a president who is half-black? Maybe in the big cities on the East and West coasts. So, have any of them given up? NO WAY! They are still hoping, still watching, still praying for a miracle.

I’ve already mailed in my ballot. The rest of you have less than three weeks left to decide. Once again, America, the whole world is watching, watching as it never has before. Don’t blow it.