The French Appraise “Schwarzy”

Here we go: and the French press, as you can well imagine, has had a lot to say about Governor-elect Schwarzenegger, who by the way apparently is known best there as “Schwarzy.”

We start with Le Monde, which features no less than three commentary pieces on the California election results, in addition to several reports of a more factual nature.

(Of the latter factual bulletins, the one I found most interesting was Le Monde’s coverage of the reaction in Austria, entitled “Mozart Is No Longer the Most Famous Austrian”. Among other things, the director of the tourist office in Graz – the city where Arnold is from – ventured that “This victory will have consequences for us that we can’t yet imagine. The first one is that Americans won’t confuse Austria with Australia any more.”)

The commentary by Samuel Blumenfeld (a Frenchman?) gives away its gist with its title: A Vote For an Image Rather Than a Candidate. You would think, Blumenfeld writes, that Arnold is following the same Hollywood-to-the-statehouse path blazed in the ’60s by Ronald Reagan, but you would be wrong. Ronald Reagan was already a substantial politician (or at least “political person”) when he was first elected California governor, as he had been active in union activities (i.e. the Screen Actors’ Guild) and politics generally ever since 1947. In contrast, Arnold of course has very little (which is not to say “no”) political experience.

Of course, that hasn’t mattered to enough California voters, who have elected him anyway. Rather than vote for any sort of explicit program (which Arnold has not offered), they have voted for an image – as Blumenfeld puts it, for “a golem in flesh-and-blood with the mandate to solve the citizens’ problems.” So does Schwarzenegger’s election mark the definitive marriage of politics and the cinema? No, says Blumenfeld, it actually marks their divorce. For politics, so goes the saying, is the “art of the possible,” while of course cinema is the “art of the impossible,” i.e. the depiction of fantasy; “nothing is more removed from cinema than politics,” in fact. Politics in a democracy is inevitably “long, difficult, irritating, and frustrating”; in the movies (and especially in the action films Schwarzenegger is famous for appearing in), the action is clear-cut and direct: the Terminator heads straight for the bad guy. The citizens of California, Blumenfeld implies, are about to find out that solving the state’s problems isn’t going to be quite as easy as it would be in the movies – but at least any political commentator worth his salt had better take up film studies as soon as possible, if he or she desires to remain relevant.

Then we have Eric Fottorino’s commentary piece, entitled The Caliph. (The “caliphs” were of course the leaders of Islam back in the Middle Ages; no, I don’t get it either, unless Fottorino just wanted to have a pun on “California,” since in French “caliph” is le calife). This is the sort of French view of the events in California that popular American prejudices would have expected to find out there somewhere: haughty, condescending. (Thank you, M. Fottorino! How confused I would have been if there had been no one French to provide this sort of commentaire!) The best way to understand the California recall election, he opines, is just to take a movie poster and use it as a political campaign poster. The casting was simply all wrong: in the face of the state’s serious problems, Gray Davis gave his constituents Diane Keaton, when what they really wanted was du saignant et de l’expéditif, i.e. “the bloody and the quick-acting.” “Biceps instead of ideas. Simple words – and please, not too many words . . .”

Too bad the California governor doesn’t really have much power. That’s true, but one could well wish that M. Fottorino went into this point more. Instead, he makes us all wonder whether he really knows what he is talking about by declaring that “Real power is in the hands of those dishevelled guys fooling around with computers in their garage overlooking the Pacific.” Hmm . . . right.

Will we have a groper (peloteur) in Sacramento after having already had a liar in the White House? he asks. No, that can’t be: no less than JFK’s niece has declared Arnold to be irreproachable, a true saint. Well, that’s good. Still, there is a French song about the Golden State that Rottorino cites at the end of his piece: “California/is near here/Just by closing your eyes/you can see it.” No thanks, he says, I’ll keep my eyes open. And too bad for California.

After this, the collective editorial about Schwarzenegger’s victory by Le Monde’s editorial staff is rather restrained. They start with that old saw that innovations which start off in California inevitably find their way eventually across the rest of the USA, and then across the Atlantic to Europe. To them, that is worrying (inquiétante) – not so much the fact of Schwarzenegger’s election, but the process that brought it about. California is a big, important political entity, with a GDP about equivalent to that of France herself. How could it vote to depose its governor, whom that same electorate had voted into office less than a year previously, who had not committed any crime or indecency? Plus, many out of that electorate found themselves voting using the same faulty technology that had caused so many problems in Florida during the disputed 2000 presidential election – “as if,” Le Monde writes, “no lesson had been retained from that fiasco.”

In sum, “direct democracy” is encroaching more and more on the “representative democracy” which is supposed to be the way politics works once political entities have grown too big for all citizens to be able to meet together in one big hall to decide things. It is not a good thing at all – and Governor Schwarzenegger will feel its effects himself, when he takes office and finds that 70% of state revenues are beyond his power and that of the legislature to allocate, since they are pre-allocated to various ends by previous referenda.

I’m sorry to report that, at the time of this writing, the Communist paper L’Humanité had yet to post any comment on the California recall election on-line. That’s a disappointment, and it means we have to move on to the daily Libération. But there’s also little material here to comment on, in that this newspaper confines itself mostly to factual reporting of what went on. The exception to that is the transcript Libération publishes of an over-the-Internet question-and-answer session over the recall with US correspondent Annette Lévy-Willard. It’s entitled “It’s Not Just a Joke, and indeed the answer from which that line comes is pretty representative of the dialogue that goes on:

Q (from one “axeldom”): Texas used to be the laughing-stock of the world, is California challenging it for that?
A: No, I don’t think so, because this is a real political problem. It’s not just an actor coming forward, it’s not just a joke. It’s a true political movement of resistance to the status quo. It’s at the same time about the insecurity of Californians, who watch as unemployment rises, who see the economic crisis, and who let themselves be seduced by a guy who reassures them.

Much better coverage comes from the newsmagazine Nouvel Observateur. But that’s not so much from its reporting and commentary – although it does devote one article to an interview with a supposed French expert on the US, Guillaume Parmentier. (He’s founder and director of the CFE, the French Center on the United States.) The big problem in California is the fiscal situation, Parmentier pronounces; Gray Davis truly is “grey” and made too many enemies – OK, so far so good. Schwarzenegger simply doesn’t have any program to deal with the situation. He’s talked about taking some measures, but he’s really not in any position to make them happen. So much for that.

No, the Nouvel Observateur does its best work – much like EuroSavant, you could say – collecting up what others have to say. For instance, here it summarized the reactions to Schwarzenegger’s triumph from various prominent world personalities. A sample:

George W. Bush: According to his press spokesman, Scott McClellan, Bush “looks forward with pleasure” to working with Schwarzenegger, and should have the opportunity shortly to congratulate him in person. As for the propriety or otherwise of the entire recall process, Bush “has said that he is interested in following the event from a political point-of-view, as a simple interested observer.”

Nicolas Sarkozy (French Minister of the Interior, and a rising political star): “I’m very divided about it. It’s true that, in France, when someone hasn’t attended the ENA [the most elite of French universities] one looks at him with a bit of pity. At the same time, it’s true that Schwarzenegger’s capabilities have not yet been demonstrated. Still, despite everything, I find that American democracy has this capacity to bounce back: someone who was a stranger in the country, who has an unpronounceable name and who [nevertheless] can become governor of the largest of the states, that’s not bad.”

The Greens. (Note: The Green party is very important in Germany, but not so important in France. It’s not in the government there, and it doesn’t threaten to get there anytime soon. Still, I thought you might find the reaction of their spokeswoman, Marie-Hélène Aubert, interesting): Schwarzenegger’s election is a “caricature derived from political spectacle.” And, unfortunately, there are some advanced signs one could point to that the same thing is happening to French democracy, although “we’re not quite there yet.” “If fiction is confused with reality and if the Terminator is as effective as he is in his films, then one really must be worried – it’s alarming, it’s terrible!”

On yet another web-page, the Nouvel Observateur offers more selected commentary – but this time concentrating on the opinions of Hollywood stars, in a piece entitled Hollywood against Schwarzy. Yes, the vast majority of Arnold’s movie studio colleagues took a dim view of his candidacy: Barbara Streisand, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Richard Dreyfuss, Annette Bening, Danny Glover, James Cromwell – all of these took out a collective advertisement in Variety urging Californians to vote “No” on the recall. Plus George Clooney, Harrison Ford (“No, I’m not voting for Arnold”), Cybill Sheperd (Arnold’s election would be “seriously the worst tragedy in California’s history”), Sylvester Stallone (“I think he’s entering a minefield. Actors should stay actors.”), Tom Hanks, Martin Sheen (“All this seems to be part of the White House’s strategy” – and he should know, right?, since he plays the President on “West Wing”), and then Woody Allen, who is true to his Hamlet-like, New York persona: “California has important problems and it’s difficult to imagine how, without any true political experience, he will be able to change the course of things . . but you never know.” The Nouvel Observateur points out that few Hollywood actors are known to be Republicans – with perhaps the outstanding exception of former National Rifle Association head Charlton Heston. (And John Wayne, yes, yes, I know. But I’m talking here about living Hollywood stars – and the Duke long ago rode up to that great Cattle Range in the Sky.)

Next up: Rave reviews for Arnold in his new political role from his Austrian homeland. Which means that – in view of the last-entry-first nature of the weblog medium – if that is already posted, then you’ve probably already read it. How was it? Good? I can’t wait to find out myself – just as soon as I write it!

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