Over the past week, I have been engaged in numerous conversations about the U.S. presidential election, almost more than I can count. And every time, the French person on the other side of the table says something to the nature of, “You’re voting for Obama, right?” or “You’re making the right choice, aren’t you?” I always laugh a hearty “yes,” for I would be a fool to do otherwise (and have the absentee ballot to prove it), but what I can’t seem to grasp is that all of these people follow up the conversation with, “but he’s not going to win.”
Why, you ask? Because he’s black.
Yup, it’s true. In a country where no black person holds a significantly high office, the French simply cannot fathom a black man becoming our next president. In America, we make side jabs about the fact that maybe our racist minority will swing the vote towards McCain, but never such a resounding, surefire “no” like the one echoing inside France.
I’d like to think France is out of the loop. Like many other things, the French are ten years behind. Last week for the first time, they discovered that their teens had a binge drinking problem and thought that perhaps the all-you-can-drink bar tickets for high school and university students might need to be reconsidered. A few weeks before that, the government decided to put a stop to selling candy cigarettes that tempted children to mimic smoking. And last I checked, the post office still had one of those Apple computers from the 1990’s with the gray screen and Pacman block letters.
But not electing a black man to become president? I’m slightly shocked. While the French have a way to go in terms of technology or bureaucratic efficiency, they have one of the largest populations of Africans in Europe. And despite their rather stingy approach to immigration, France has not faced a major racial cleansing crisis seen in America or other European nations in recent history.
Then again, perhaps France is getting its comeuppance, only just now facing real and true immigration questions – ones they must face imminently. As it ships its immigrants out to the furthest suburban corners of the nation into degraded public housing, they put the questions of race and cultural integration into a hermetically sealed space where no decision has to be made for another ten years. So, I suppose there too, France is several years behind.
For the French, electing a black man is like a distant dream, something people dare to imagine but dare not deem reality. “He will be assassinated!” they say. Or simply, “It will never happen.” But when questioned why, they can’t come up with a response. It just is what it is.
France has lived stuck in its ways for centuries and we’ve loved them for it. The image of the baguette carrying, beret wearing, coffee drinking Frenchman still has relevance and most of the world’s citizens would like to hold onto that alluring picture for another century to come. But France’s cultural, technological and political growth is stagnating. As other European and Asian countries are sprinting to catch up, France has the choice to sink or swim.
I say, the French ought to kick start into a lightening speed freestyle and take their country’s old school ideals for all their worth.
And while they’re at it, put in a good word for Obama.