Saturday, December 06, 2008

An open message to the French media : He's black. (And white.) Get over it.

This post has been a long time coming. Bits and pieces of it can be found on inspired comments I left on other people's blogs, but it took some distance from the election to put my thoughts together on how unbearably annoying the French coverage of Barack Obama's campaign and election was to me.

It takes a lot to get my husband to turn off France Inter, one of France's public radio stations, but a few days before the election, even he couldn't take it anymore. "Le candidat noir, le candidat noir, le candidat noir..." The two words had become a collocation in the French press, one rarely appearing without the other.

Click. Sound over. We were free to discuss the real issues going on in the US election.

But it was perhaps that day, a few weeks before the election, when one of my colleagues (all of whom supported Obama and supported me throughout the stressful electoral process, I must add) sat down and grimly announced that he "had heard on TV that the polls were all wrong." He then proceeded to give a highly simplistic interpretation of the Bradley effect.

I took a deep breath and explained precisely why the Bradley effect was most likely not applicable to this election (hoping against hope I would be right) and my colleagues remarked that they wondered if they were really getting the full picture from French TV.

Now I cannot pretend to have kept up with ALL French media coverage and ALL American coverage of the 2008 presidential election -- who can? But I can say that while France was clearly in the grips of a type of Obama-mania, its citizens also couldn't get past the concept that Obama was, above all, le candidat noir. On the other hand, even when I gritted my teeth and watched Fox news from time to time, I got the feeling the US media were by and large ignoring race by the end of the campaign.

So what's the deal? Why, in the country of liberté, égalité et fraternité, was Obama's race constantly an issue?

For one thing, I have noticed that many French people are -- or were, hehe! -- extremely fond of pontificating about American racism. Nowhere is this more present than in the national school programs, where French schoolchildren spend what seems to me an inordinate amount of time studying Rosa Parks, the March on Washington, and the Ku Klux Klan.

Now don't get me wrong. These are worthy subjects and we can admire the fact that the French educational system cares so much to delve so far into American history. I'm sure that stateside, the same number of hours aren't spent on the 2005 French race riots or the presence of Jean-Marie LePen as a final candidate in France's less-than-glorious 2002 presidential race.

The image of a racist America died hard in France. Only days before the election, Télérama, a left-wing cultural magazine, issued a "Special USA Edition." Among the feature articles: Il n'y a pas de littérature noire! and Universités d'Alabama: la ségrégation toujours dans les têtes (original title from the magazine version.)

The articles proved more measured than their sensationalistic titles, but I couldn't help but think that the journalists were grasping at straws and just couldn't resist taking one last stab at their precious image of the USA as a bastion of racism.

Now French writers, especially schoolbook authors, can start to construct new chapters about race relations in America, preferably chapters that deal with events after 1963. They've got some catching up to do. And I hope when they do it, they will also be capable of occasionally disconnecting the word président from the word noir.

28 comments:

Loulou said...

Brilliant Betty! I just read this to my husband who is sitting across the room as I type, and we both agree with you. Bravo!

tut-tut said...

I think it will settle out in January, when he really takes control (though from the looks of things, and the frequency of his new conferences, Obama is in charge already).

Le laquet said...

I hadn't realised that the media was having trouble separating the words - will he be allowed to just get on with the job do you think?

Jess said...

Interestingly,
I was pleasantly surprised with the American media's lack of interest in his color. It really only started to become a sensation after his election..."First black president" headlines on papers and such. I think in large part, it had to do with the fact that Obama himself did not peg himself as "the black candidate". He really seemed to bring up race very little.

I would venture to say that had McCain/Palin won( oh boy, that left a bad taste in my mouth! ), there would be as much sensation about the "First female VP".

Megan said...

Oh goodness. I got so sick of the questions: Do you really think a black man can be elected?
If France thinks that they don't have a race problem, they have got another think coming.
Perhaps they don't have such a history/problem with black people, but Arabic people are treated like crap and it is going to come back and bite (traditional white French people) in the rear in the not-so-distant future.

Randal Graves said...

Wait. Obama is black? Someone tell the voters, quick!

I think the French are simply shocked that it happened here, given how backwards we are about a lot of stuff. Hell, I didn't think Obama would get it. Of course, as you point out, it's not as if France doesn't have her own problems concerning race.

Betty C. said...

Randal, of course they are shocked but that's because they have chosen to close their eyes to the past 45 years of American history...

I think you had to have been here -- as Megan says, the constant "oh but do you really think the US is capable of electing a black man" comments got most tiring.

As an American friend of mine put it, how many black candidates for the presidency has France had?

spacedlaw said...

Still. Better black than "tanned", as Berlusconi pronounced him...

jeorg said...

what I "love" about the french obsession with american racism and bigotry the most is the blatant disregard if their own racism and bigotry against muslims and north africans...

overall though, I think the thing to take from any of it is that the news coverage anywhere is always one-sided and subjective... all one needs is a grain of salt...

La Framéricaine said...

Betty C.,

I think that it is great that you decided to express yourself a bit on this subject.

While there are any number of talents and attributes that I admire chez les Français, I find that, as a group and as a gross generalization, they have, at the very least, blind spots as concerns their own provincialism, bigotry, and discriminatory attitudes, practices, and behaviors.

They have a long way to go socially in both race- and gender-politics as concerns employment, inheritance law, and equal representation in the halls of government, business, education, entertainment, and the law.

I think the fact that they do not include information on race and ethnicity in their census data allows them to delude themselves and deny the rapidly changing nature of their society and their notions about "les français de souche" rather than coming to terms with the implications of their colonial past and recognizing their own institutionalized racism towards their citizens and resident aliens of black African-, Arabic North African-, Vietnamese-, Cambodian-, Laotian-, Polynesian-, and West Indian-descent.

In this context, it bears mentioning that Italian-, Portuguese-, and Spanish-descended French citizens also put up with a lot of BS, a bit less now, but... And let's not forget the Corsicans.

So, I guess, people in glass countries shouldn't throw rocks.

Betty C. said...

Jess -- I do think the constant references to his race will calm down after the inauguration, and indeed have already gone down a bit. As Megan said, the big question seemed to be "Can America do it?"

spacedlaw -- well yes, that just comes from one person though, albeit a highly-placed one. I was wondering if the Italian media had behaved like the French...

Jeorg and Framéricaine, I totally agree. I could go on and on about things I hear in everyday life too where people don't think they're being racist but they really are!

I think the notion of "political correction" ("correctness?") might do France some good.

Anonymous said...

Betty you also forgot about Jews.
I get so tired of reading the anti-semitic comments on AOL France. I have reported abuse and one day might have to contact the anti-defamation league and complain.
Here in Manhattan Beach, with lots of Republicans voters, the word was "if Obama gets elected, someone will try to kill him". Another comment was "he is not black, his mother is white"!!!! All I can say is "thank God" for Obama. The US couldn't keep on going another 4 years with the kind of idiots we've had for 8 years. I hope this wonderful man, whatever his skin color...will take us out of the mess we are in, created by the white man's greed. After 8 awful years, we can all look forward to a better future.
France can walk with her tail between her legs and might consider voting for better canditates.

Betty C. said...

Anonymous, indeed, there have been a number of anti-Semitic incidents in France over the past years.

I'm not sure I like that comment "created by the white man's greed." I think the greed is more linked to power; it so happens that the power has been held in the USA by a disporportionate number of white males, but "the white man" cannot be considered the sole source of America's woes.

Alison said...

Betty, I read this yesterday but didn't comment. Thanks for the excellent post...it makes me kind of glad I wasn't still working in France. I can just imagine all the questions in the teacher's lounge! I was the token American and heard all kinds of stuff about my country. [insert eye roll]

Anyway, you alluded to this a couple of weeks ago, and I commented then that the press here didn't make race a big issue. Thank goodness.

L Vanel said...

Hey Betty, I read your post today with interest - I also had the same thoughts.

Anonymous said...

President elect Obama picked Hillary (for her extensive experience - no doubt ) and

Robert Gates ( Dumbya last pick after Rumsfeld)

and a few clintonites to boot

The CHANGE factor has been quite undermined by politics as usual.

Betty C. said...

Anonymous,

That isn't really the subject of my post, but your comment isn't offensive, so I guess I will post it.

I much prefer non-anonymous comments though.

I think the change factor can only be truly judged a few years down the raod.

poppy fields said...

If someone says to me one more time something about "will they really elect a black man", to "wow, they elected a black man", or now: "I hope they don't assassinate him" one more time, I think I'll implode. I work in a French tourist office as the token American, and people have felt quite" obliged" to come in and share all their opinions with me. My car, with my Obama bumper sticker is usually parked right in front of the office, so my feelings on the subject are known, but I just wish people would get over the color thing and focus on the hope in change Barack Obama brings to many of us.

Linda said...

I have to say that I was surprised, but happy and relieved, that Obama was elected. I didn't think in the end that America would elect him. I guess there isn't a country in the world that isn't racist really. I find it in France and I saw it in Switzerland just to name two.

Lynn said...

Betty, I live in Arkansas and this summer while vacationing with girlfriends in NYC, was interviewed by a journalist (American but working & living in France for many years)
He could not believe that race was not the big issue in the election. He was quite surprised
Lynn

Elisabeth said...

I think that it's kind of easy to go with the "they" vs. "us" notion - i.e. the French are really naive to reduce Obama to the following two words: Black man (or, rather, now [thank God!] with the following three words: First Black President, while us, Americans, were able to move beyond the race issue (my own two words to qualify Obama are "smart" and "articulate.") Is France more racist that America? I really do not know, there are many bigots and racist folks in France, as there are many of them also in the U.S. I just think that the French and the Americans deal with racism in very different ways.

I think, Betty, that you made a great point when you mentioned what parts of American history - its racist past, namely - are emphasized in history classes in French schools.

I have to admit, though, that - and this was perhaps in late spring or early summer 2008, my French brother made a comment on my blog about how he really did not think that Obama could be elected, because America was still fundamentally a racist country.

I will shut up now, because I really hate getting into such controversial topics, and, let me put it this way. I know nothing about race relations and racism. I was once qualified as naive by folks who know their stuff in those areas, because I had expressed the wish that we could all be colorblind.

Betty C. said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment Elisabeth. I know it is difficult, and not always appropriate. But I did do a lot of media surfing in both countries, and I really did notice how the French media was virtually always using the word "noir" to describe Obama.

As I may have said in an earlier comment, I think the notion of P.C. could be developed here with some positive results.

Then again, I do come from a totally left-wing college town in the USA, so my vision of the USA is certainly very biased too...

Betty C. said...

Lynn, thank you for sharing that piece of information. It adds a little more proof to my pudding.

Veronica said...

Coming late to this, but basically "what La Framéricaine said" :-) Many French people seem blind to their own covert racism. The French record on female and black representation in government and administration is appalling. And do you remember the huge fuss over Harry Roselmack, the (black) newsreader who stood in for PPDA a couple of summers ago? He was France's *first* black newsreader. Way to go.

There may be another explanation for some of the "candidat noir" stuff though -- the rule of "elegant variation". French journalists do like to pick one aspect of someone to use as an alternative handle so that they don't have to repeat the name all the time -- e.g. Martine Aubry "le maire de Lille", Ségolène Royal "la Président de Poitou-Charentes". You can ask why they picked on that aspect of Obama, but to them I suppose it's the most obvious thing differentiating him from McCain (sigh).

Betty C. said...

Well, maybe, Veronica, but why not just "le candidat démocrate" ou "du parti démocrat"?

Veronica said...

exactly. Or "le sénateur d'Illinois".

Tinsie said...

Excellent post, Betty!

Non, Je ne regrette rien said...

late to the party as usual. I agree racism exists in France and had noticed the references to Obama's skin color ... but I don't think that eliminates the fact that the US also has a racist present. Obama's election is a hopeful event, but it doesn't negate the fact that the US still has an undercurrent of institutionalized prejudice to overcome. Our recent election gives cause to expect more progress ... and perhaps it will come a bit more quickly.

However anyone with ties to the black community or relationships with and within will tell you that this single event hasn't changed much. yet.

I think references to Obama's skin color are really more than expected given the unusual and historic nature of his candidacy. In Europe or the US, blacks haven't exactly been well represented in areas of public leadership at the highest levels. So it is a newsworthy mention (black, that is). Just the same as Hillary's being a woman ... or if in the future a hispanic or asian candidate emerged.

Great thought and discussion-provoking topic!