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.