Notes from the French Underground

The account is published in Le Monde, but you almost expect that the message was smuggled out in microfilm, in the form of text requiring a secret decoder-ring to decipher. It tells the tale of a dangerous “mole” who has managed to penetrate one of the Organization’s high rituals: a correspondent from this leading French newspaper reports from on-the-scene at one of the “Ask President Bush” campaign appearances the Bush campaign has recently held around the country (Meeting George Bush, Half Rock Star, Half God).

“Penetrate” likely carries less poetic license than you might think; these events are for true Republican believers only, and there are explicit screening procedures established to keep out undesirables – like, say, Democrats. You can read about the details in the parallel account recently published in the Washington Post by staff writer Hanna Rosin (in English of course), but Le Monde’s writer himself mentions attendees to the campaign rally he covered in St. Paul, Minnesota having first to pick up their (free) tickets at the local Republican Party headquarters, providing first name, last name, and photo-ID. (By the way, I’ll have to write “Le Monde’s reporter” because the signature at the bottom of the article is abbreviated down to incomprehensibility – “J.-M. Dy.” – which only adds to the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere.)

LETTING THE WORDS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

And so “J.M. Dy.” gets in, simply observes unobtrusively, takes notes, and ultimately makes his way out again to his hidey-hole with the clandestine short-wave radio – er, sorry, to his local office with the e-mail account – to report to his fellow French-speakers. The grandiose arrival by presidential bus into St. Paul’s Excel Energy Center; the emergence of the man they all know simply as “W” (although certainly not to his face) in a beam of floodlight just like Mick Jagger might take the stage; the ensuing five-minute ovation, which the President endures patiently in his standard campaigner’s outfit of blue shirt (no tie; shirt-sleeves rolled up) and formal pants.

Actually, the preliminary crowd warm-up that occurs before the President was even in the building, featuring a certain radio talk-show host by the name of Laura Ingraham, is at least as interesting to our French reporter as anything that happens afterwards. But here a certain subtlety must come into play in the interpretation of his article. Knowledge of the French language alone is not enough; his writing is not blatant enough to include anything as straightforward as “Can you believe what these people are saying?” or “What poppycock!” No, he just passes straight along what he hears and sees, without comment, confident in the knowledge that most of it will grate on French sensibilities in a very annoying way. I don’t mean here the appeals he reports Ms. Ingraham making to values such as “the family” or “freedom of religion”; but with her further reference to the “superior power that guides our actions” readers of Le Monde probably start to shift uncomfortably in their chairs. Then there’s the gospel choir our correspondent mentions, made up of former drug-addicts healed through a Christian rehabilitation program “supported by President Bush,” or the call to the audience from the stage by a Member of Congress to join him in prayer, or the teen-age color-guard that leads everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance – in Europe they don’t have pledges of allegiance, much less public communal prayer anywhere outside the Vatican. (Our correspondent can simulate prayer, no doubt, but I know he was nervous during the Pledge, nervous whether anyone around him noticed that he didn’t know it.) And how about the declaration by another speaker that “We are the generation of September 11, and we will terrorize the terrorists!”? Or that of another who “prefers to hunt terrorists in Najaf rather than in the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul”? Finally, the impact on Le Monde readers of Ms. Ingraham’s own on-stage assertion that “I prefer to be hated by the French than not to be respected by Americans” speaks for itself.

To a lesser degree, our Frenchman in St. Paul also gives President Bush’s remarks at the rally this same understated treatment. (Dare we term his technique Moi, je rapporte; vous, vous d├ęcidez? Hint: think Fox News.) Gems like that he thinks about how to ensure America’s security “every morning”; or “I will never yield in defending America!” But what I find actually disappointing is that our Man doesn’t catch the sheer inanity of the cream-puff questions posed to the President at such functions by this hand-picked crowd, and pass these on to his readers in a similar way. They are conveyed much better in Hanna Rosin’s WaPo article: from her account, it seems that most of the President’s “questioners” step forward to let him know they are praying for him, rather than actually to pose any query. Or they say “thank you for serving your country” on the basis of his early-1970s National Guard service. (Not so fast, sir: the evidence that could show whether he truly served his country in the Guard as he had signed up to do is apparently still mysteriously missing at the Center for Military Records!) Perhaps the sheer air-headedness of all this exceeded even this sophisticated Frenchman’s capacity for the inter-cultural understanding of what he was witnessing. (Or, then again, maybe I’m way off base here: maybe this particular event at the Excel Energy Center in St. Paul did not include any such – pardon the expression – question-and-answer session.)

ESCAPE TIME

In any case, as the event winds to a close it is time to get on out of there, past the massive police and Secret Service presence at the arena’s entrances. But they aren’t there to trap spying foreigners; they are mainly there to make sure there is no troubles between those emerging from the building and the 200-or-so Kerry demonstrators outside. Anyway, there are also counter-demonstrators there to keep the pro-Kerry people in line, namely a contingent of “Veterans for Bush.” Looking for that wrap-up quote on his way out, our reporter sidles up to them. Could they please contribute some comments on this event for a French journalist? “No.”

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