Why French People are Obsessed with the American Election

Getting up at 3am to watch a presidential debate is an unfortunate necessity for every American in France.

Picture this: You crawl out of bed, and try not to wake the husband or the baby while staggering downstairs in the dark. Outside in the blue light of dawn, the early birds are still dreaming of worms. You, meanwhile, blink at the computer screen. Your eyes adjust to the glare as your brain adjusts to the carnage streaming live from home sweet home.

This scenario is the reality for most Americans living abroad. Politics must be consumed in secret, in the dead of night. Expats are tolerated at first, appreciated eventually and ultimately warmly accepted. Expat politics are always a touchy subject. Americans abroad need to be armed with information.

To be perfectly honest, I slept through the debates this year – with a baby daughter at home, sleep is at a premium. However, I did wake up early enough to binge on first response post-debate analysis. I struggled to remember what channel CNN was, only to find it didn’t work, then settled on watching the highlights from the debate online (sniffling and no-handshaking included).

Yes, I care very much about the outcome of the presidential election. Yes, I sent in my overseas voter ballot. Yes, I have complicated, conflicting feelings. And yes, as an American living in France, I am ready to answer any question, assumption and accusation with steely diplomatic poise. My French friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even family expect me to be a walking and breathing Google search for all things related to American politics.

“You’re American? Do you vote? You’re not voting for Trump, right?”

As an American within the French community, you are pretty much wearing a sign that says “Ask Me Anything about the Upcoming Election”, whether you like it or not.

When I first moved to France, this heavy responsibility came as a big surprise. The French are typically hush-hush when it comes to personal political leanings. Yes, fervent political debates happen everywhere, all the time, between friends and family. Yet an air of secrecy shrouds French polls on voting day. No French person would ever put signs on their front lawns or bumper stickers on their cars. Strong opinions are expected, but according to the laws of French social etiquette it’s unacceptable to actually say who you’re voting for. Such honesty is an affront to propriety. It will make your dinner guests very uncomfortable.

And yet, when you walk in as the token American, all sense of prying and voting secrecy is thrown out the window. Meeting someone new on election year often has a similar script: if being American comes up into the conversation for some reason (usually to explain why I’m heading back there for the third time this year), it goes something along the lines of “Ooooh. Elections, huh.” Unfortunately, there is no way to end that conversation. If I roll my eyes, it is a cue. If I shrug, same thing. I can tell my new acquaintance is tiptoeing, slowly pacing around the question: “I mean, you’re not voting for Trump, obviously…obviously?” Someday, I promise myself, I’ll say yes just to throw them off. Since I’m not trying to lose any friends just quite yet, I’m still holding off.

“Bernie the Commie”

Around the time of the primaries, I attended a meeting at the luxury goods company I worked for at the time. The topic of our conversation – ultra-wealthy individuals – eventually turned to Donald Trump. Everyone agreed he was a bit of a Berlusconi type, and the focus eventually shifted to the Democrats.
“Bernie Sanders, that guy’s a real communist,” someone said. I stared around the room in amazement as everyone nodded in agreement. Admittedly, it’s not like I was at a meeting for the railway workers union, but the statement surprised me coming from a French person. France’s history with communism has been anything except fleeting. I mean, Ho Chi Minh was a founding member of the French Communist Party (PCF)! Had this guy been watching Fox News during his lunch breaks? I realized then that once formally identified as an “American Person” (the literal exact words used by my bank) there was no way to avoid hearing every possible opinion on the United States presidential election.

Yet with so much going on in France this year, why is everyone so entranced by everything Trump? For one, the French love a good story. The 2016 American political race has twists and turns, ego battles, and electrifying media spin.

Even more importantly, the current American melodrama has no bearing on French voters. With distance, what seems horrifying to most Americans is, for the French, a seedy reality show. The kind you know you should stop watching… yet you keep coming back for more.

“Sure, we might have to deal with Marine Le Pen, but Donald Trump sounds even worse”

I still had trouble understanding why, beyond the sheer entertainment it provides, everyone spends so much time dissecting the American election. Doesn’t it get a little old, a little boring, after a while? Doesn’t the Trump plot line lose its interest for non-voters in this election? Given that France will go to the polls in 2017 to elect its president, and that there is so much at stake, I was especially perplexed.

I looked at it, once again, with my French cap on. Focusing on the ridiculous nature of this year’s American race to the Oval Office is also a way of forgetting, if only for a moment, about the morose political situation here in France. The French enjoy a good laugh about Trump, because they know there isn’t much to laugh about at home. As a country that is still reeling from recent attacks, where politicians are successfully wooing voters with Frexit and anti-immigration speeches, there’s not a lot of fun to be had here.

The French are fully aware of the gravity of it all. It’s just that watching another country’s political freak show gives us a hint of the feeling that… hey, it could always get worse!

Important decisions will soon be made on both sides of the Atlantic. To my French friends, I’ll keep on giving honest answers to “just one quick question” you have about who I’m voting for on November 8th. In a few months I hope you return the favor.

C’est le jeu, non?

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