At the DNC It’s Hip to Be French – Not!

The great and the merely good – around 35,000 people in all – are now assembling for the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and among those who have arrived is the French politician Pierre Moscovici, whose last flight to the United States, on September 11, 2001, actually passed over a smoking New York City on its way to the nearest available airport. Now he has returned under what are obviously rather happier circumstances, with his purpose, as he puts it, “to bring the support of the Socialist Party” for John Kerry.

“Great; just great,” one can imagine the presidential candidate’s staff responding. Could you try not to say that too loud, fella? And certainly not in English, or to any American journalists! In fact, Moscovici will be but one of a French delegation to the convention that includes not only two prominent figures from the right-wing (in French terms) governing UMP party, as well as the “mayor of Saint-Briac (Ille-et-Vilaine)” who also happens to be John Kerry’s cousin, one Brice Lalond. (You can get a fuller list of the VIPs, French and otherwise, from the French newspaper Libération.) But one suspects that position on the French political spectrum, or even blood-relations, isn’t going to matter much; the operating concept is “keep your head down,” because anything French, anything at all, is these days the political kiss of death, as Guillemette Faure writes for Le Figaro in Frenchmen Obliged to Be Discrete. (“Guillemette Faure”? Eeeuhw, what an atrociously-French name! But please go easy on this person – please be gentlemen, gentlewomen, gentlepeople – because this is likely a female French reporter.)


Yes, anything at all French is supposed to demonstrate one’s unfitness for American politics, which is why the Bush people have already gone after candidate Kerry on this score when there really is not much there to write home about. As Faure recounts the tale, his grandmother married a diplomat – no, not a Frenchman – and so spent some time living there. It was also there that Kerry’s mother, Rosemary, met her husband, but he also was not French but an American soldier. Now, Kerry’s sister, Fiona (certainly a very Irish name there, by the way) did stay and marry in France, and that explains cousin Brice.

And yes, in his youth John Kerry did vacation in France and – perhaps most damning of all – he does speak the language. But not anymore when he doesn’t have to; Faure notes that that Kerry will not respond to French journalists in French (and presumably neither to questions posed in French). Yet still, insinuations along the lines of “Well, he looks French” continue to issue from the Bush-Cheney campaign, together with bumper-stickers along the lines of “John Kerry, President . . . of France!”

In a charming, plaintive sentence that I personally would love to hear Mlle. Faure pose out loud (and yes, in the original French), she writes “How can it be that these accusations of French connections [but no pun or cinematic allusion intended] can harm the Democratic candidate?” Yes, one reason is France’s rather unhelpful stance when it came to the War in Iraq, but it really goes rather beyond that. As she quotes Thomas Frank, author of the recent political book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, “Deep America sees the French as intellectuals who are a bit snobby. And the conservatives have campaigned by treating Democrats as elitists disconnected from the rest of the country. Kerry being supported by the French, that confirms the worst doubts that voters have of him.”

(This hasn’t stopped the Kerry campaign from engaging the services of one Dr. Clotaire Rapaille – ugh! another very French name, and this one’s male! – who however has lived in the States for twenty years and, more to the point, is some sort of marketing genius, having pioneered a so-called “cultural archetypology” technique for identifying and addressing voter population-segments. This is reported in the article A French Doctor for Kerry, by Fabrice Rousselot (yuck! . . . yes, yes . . .) in Libération.)

By and large, though, it seems that the French who are arriving in Boston know the deal, and will keep a low profile. Obviously, they’re only there to observe and learn (or perhaps just to enjoy) in the first place, and it seems that many will perform these things not necessarily mainly at the Fleet Convention Center but rather elsewhere in the area – at the think-tanks and the universities, for example. (Indeed, Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary under Clinton and now president of Harvard, will be receiving Alain Juppé, certainly a major bigwig out of President Jacques Chirac’s party – no less than a former premier, although now under somewhat of a political cloud, but that’s a long story that we won’t get into here.) Naturally, there will also be a French delegation in New York City at the end of August at the Republican convention, where the dynamic will be somewhat different. Indeed, that gives author Thomas Frank an idea: “The French could endorse Bush’s candidacy,” he points out, bursting out laughing. “That would be a great idea to make him lose!”


“Make him lose”: maybe the Bush campaign actually has a point in its francophobia, as it’s easy to conclude from the French press that that is precisely what the mission would be, if the French actually had influence or say in the American presidential election. One clue among many is today’s cover of Libération (pictured): “100 Days to Beat Bush.” Yet the Libération staff are clearly well-aware that that is hardly a sure thing. Their articles today on the Democratic convention (other than the purely informational, cited above) have a nervous air, and plenty of advice to give the candidate. (For what it’s worth; but I daresay that it’s advice that Kerry is also getting from wholesome, trustworthy, grade-A All-American sources with clean teeth and healthy bones.) In his article John Kerry the Elusive (although the adjective he uses in the title – l’insaississable – can also even mean “slippery”), the already-mentioned M. Rousselot comes up with “aloof” as the adjective he has most-often found associated with the Democratic candidate, and calls him “prone to contradictions.” Other than his Vietnam service, people really don’t know very much about him; Rousselot cites a recent poll showing that 70% of respondents (all Americans, of course) admitted to not have a very clear idea about him. In his twenty-nine years in the US Senate he has never had a signature piece of legislation attached to his name.

On the other hand, Rousselot gives Kerry credit for his intensive campaigning throughout the country of the past several weeks, during which he has set out his key positions for the voters: cancelling the Bush tax-cuts for the rich, raising the minimum wage, and an internationalist foreign policy “that will permit America to regain her place in the world.” And of course the selection of John Edwards as his vice-presidential candidate was an inspired choice, infusing a new vitalism into the campaign. Says one Democrat, “Edwards is perfect because he obliges Kerry to put himself on the level of the people, on the level of the voters, and if Kerry ‘connects,’ he can go all the way.” The convention, then, offers the Democratic candidate the perfect opportunity to complete this process, to have himself portrayed and portray himself as a convincing “clear alternative” to the incumbent.

In his associated editorial (Second Breath), Antoine de Gaudemar is even more pessimistic about the Massachusetts Senator. We know everything about George W. Bush, he declares; we know little or nothing about John F. Kerry, other than that he fought heroically in Vietnam. His campaign has lacked punch; he has been unable to shake off an aristocratic coldness, nor an impression of lacking any firm convictions. Furthermore, the Democratic has been strangely silent during a 2004 already filled with significant, shocking events: revolt in Iraq, Abu Ghraib revelations, the reports of the the 9/11 and the Iraq Intelligence commissions. And so it’s only natural that he has not benefited in the polls as he should have from the Bush administration’s “frustrations, not to say discredit.” The only spark in what De Gaudemar calls “this dismal campaign” has of course been the introduction of John Edwards (he with “the smile of a dentist”).

Twisting heroically to find a silver lining, De Gaudemar concludes that maybe Kerry is going for a “tortoise strategy” (although that “tortoise” is my interpretation, and not actually a term used by De Gaudemar): slow and steady – especially to the political center – wins the race and the election. Still, what the world sees of him this week will be absolutely crucial to give his campaign that “second breath,” and to prevent this election from being merely a referendum on whether to give George W. Bush a second term.


Finally – among all the many other articles from the French on-line press on the Democratic Convention, even as it has yet to formally begin, but there’s only so much time – I gladly repair to the ultra-valuable French press-review feature offered in Le Nouvel Observateur. Here the kind editors of this eminent newsmagazine do part of my job for me – that is, finding articles on the give subject – although the trade-off is that I have little choice but to trust that they have picked out the key extracts from each article. (Right at the top is just such an extract from Antoine de Gaudemar’s editorial in Libération that we just got finished discussing, so we have a “control” to judge how well the Nouvel Observateur editors perform; but I’m afriad it’s still really hard to tell.) Among the contributions worth mentioning, I like this one from Jean-Claude Kiefer out of Les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace (and no, it’s not because his last name is not very French, and even though it admittedly has little to do with the DNC):

After the immense wave of sympathy for a United States hit by the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration has unleashed, by incompetence or self-conceit, a fear of America [“américanophobie“] without precedent since the Vietnam War. It translates into a loss of credibility from which international relations must suffer.

This paralyzes the initiatives that Washington might want to take here or there. Too numerous are those countries which already drag their feet and look for the tricks [i.e. the “catch”] in everything the US proposes. With this confidence gone, John F. Kerry or Georges W. Bush [note the spelling!] have no other choice than to re-establish it. Not out of philanthropy but simply because it’s in the interest of the United States.

Or some interesting advice from Patrick Fluckiger of L’Alsace (and what a great non-French name!): Kerry has been spending a lot of his campaign’s effort and energy responding to George Bush’s attacks. But if he really wants to live up to his “JFK” initials (and we can all catch the reference), he needs to use the Convention to go on the offensive and propose some sort of ambitious project. It just won’t do anymore just to recite, as he did last weekend, what are supposedly America’s traditional values: “Faith, family, and the sense of service.”* All of this ne mangent pas de pain – the French expression for, say, “butters no parsnips,” i.e. ultimately doesn’t mean anything, and could risk ceding the initiative back to the Bush-Cheney campaign.

(*Footnote: Fluckiger’s list of America’s values cited by Kerry was actually La foi, la famille, la force et le sens du service, which would make it seem that he lists “Force” as the third such fundamental American value. Huh? Could he have meant something like “the force instilling a sense of service,” or was this Gallic slyness popping up again with a subtle dig at America? I really don’t know. Maybe the Bush-Cheney campaign – together with the supposed opinion from the American heartland – have the French pegged correctly after all!)

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