This past Monday, I was hanging out in a classroom during recess with two little French girls of African descent. They were talking to me about what's excited large parts of the French population these past few months: Barack Obama.
"Are you voting for John McCain or Barack Obama?" they asked me. I wish I could somehow express in writing how they pronounced the names in French; it's really cute.
They were excited, one said, because he'd be the first African president of the US. Their teacher corrected them and said he's African American, and there's a difference, to which one girl replied with a very French "Mais quand même!" (But still!)
It's the cuter and more inspiring part of what I've noticed out here - Barack Obama was generally preferred to Hillary Clinton out here, but, now that he's sealed the nomination, the world community has come down solidly in favor of an Obama presidency.
As the chart to the right shows, all over the world Barack Obama has a higher favorability rating than John McCain (except in the US, where it's pretty much tied, according to this poll).
Particularly in France, there's a sense that US-France relations will drastically improve with an Obama presidency, and they're probably right. They still remember video of Americans pouring their French wine in the street and bring it up half the time I mention to a new person that I'm American. They still laugh at us over the whole freedom fries thing. And they still love American culture - hip hop, fast food, high-end action movies, and New York fashion get lots of love over here.
But there's a more annoying aspect to this among French pundits (yes, they have them here, and I even hear some of the same complaints about them that we have about American pundits). Andrei Markovits discusses Europe's reaction to Obama:
In an awful lot of those responses, the basic message runs along the following lines. Now, finally, there may be a chance (a chance, not a certainty) that those American barbarians might be about to return to their senses -- which, in essence, means European senses and sensibilities. In contrast to the cowboy Bush and his dangerous supporters, Obama is practically an honorary European, who can appreciate the wisdom, virtue, and enlightenment typically monopolized by Europeans (which usually means western Europeans). This is often followed by the ultimate seal of approval -- they would be delighted to vote for Obama themselves, if given the chance.
There are the facts that he's intellectual, speaks charismatically, dresses well (he made the cover of a free paper out here for his fashion in an article that compared him to Kennedy, who has streets named after him in French cities), and against the war. But where this love comes from, more love than American conservative pundits and columnists ever gave French president Nicolas Sarkozy, even though in domestic and foreign policy terms Sarkozy is better for American conservatives than Obama is for French progressives.
Besides a sign of improved relations with the US, Obama is, to French people, not a real American. Markovits says:
A number of European countries have elected women to high political office, even the highest. (Score that one for the Europeans, at least some of them.) But as Jerry Karabel and I pointed out, none of them has ever elected a non-white person of any extraction to its highest political office -- that is, head of state or head of government. (Actually, no predominantly-white country in the world has ever elected a black person to its highest political office.)
OK, neither has the US so far. But the more telling point is that in none of these countries have significant numbers of non-whites risen high enough in the political system that they could even be considered plausible candidates for the highest offices.
In France (depending on how the calculations are done) roughly ten per cent of the population are of Arab or sub-Saharan African origin. But the 577 members of the Chamber of Deputies do not include a single person of color.
Indeed, "American citizenship" is pretty much the easiest one in the world to get, and to be considered culturally American, all you have to do is be born on US soil.
Europeans think about nationality differently than we do. If I mention that my mother is Argentine, people expect me to act like I have Latin blood (what that even means, I don't know) and are pretty forward in telling me so. I even got into a small argument with a German man once who insisted, because of my features and origins, that I was actually Spanish, not American.
I was talking to a woman from Liverpool who's of Nigerian descent in my city of St. Etienne, and she doesn't consider herself "English," but "British" was OK since she's a citizen of the UK.
Another man who I talked to briefly responded when I asked him if he was French, "No, I'm Tunisian." I found out a few minutes later that I had asked the wrong question, because he was a French citizen, and that's what I wanted to know since I had a paperwork question.
My list could go on and on. The point is, no matter how bad we think we are when it comes to accepting others in the US, we're doing way better at conferring the label "American" on diverse people than any other country I've seen. We hand it out to anyone who wants to claim it who legitimately can; they instead explain to me how African Americans aren't part of the American race, nor is anyone else, really, except for people of German, English, and Irish descent (yes, it was explained to me that directly, with a scoff at me disagreeing).
While American progressives tend to think of Europe as a model of progressive good government, there was a time when they looked to us as leaders in social change (and LGBT people still do, especially trans people, if the limited coverage they get in gaystream publications here is any indication). And Europe is far from solidly progressive, even though they have more extensive social services than the US does.
That's to say, Europe's definition of progressive is different from the America's because of different cultural contexts.
But from what I've heard out here, the idea of a black American president, someone who many French people don't consider American because of his race, someone who many French people make a point of insisting he is American because of his race, hits home the idea that the world is actually changing. To many here, it blows their mind especially because their concepts of nationality, race, and ethnicity are more powerful and restrictive than ours are. A black American president, to the French left, is a solution to their characteristic fatalism (that one's a stereotype because it's real) and shows that the world is drastically moving in the direction that they're trying to make it move.
(My perspective is limited to France, and Europe is far from uniform. But Markovits and Jeff Weintraub both point out that France is, by several indications, further along in addressing its diversity than other European countries are.)
Le Figaro, a French paper, comments on how Obama is seen as a sign of progress that they themselves haven't achieved:
With Obama, a certain idea of America is back: that of a generous society where equality of opportunity is not an empty promise. Hope and change, key words of his campaign, reinforce this rediscovered ideal, which resonates as much inside the country as beyond.
The chart above shows that the spread between McCain and Obama in France - 84 to 33 - is the largest of any country measured. There's a reason for that - he embodies many of their hopes for themselves in more than concrete policy terms.
So when Obama says "in no other country on Earth is my story even possible," he's right, at least when compared to other Western countries. Let's not forget that.