French Perspectives on Our American Election

Oct 24, 2016

During her summer internship at WMRA Marguerite Gallorini, who is from France, has been exploring the differences, and similarities, between the ways that Americans and the French approach today’s world.  In the last few weeks, that’s included the global refugee crisis, and how we view work and vacation time.  Today, Marguerite has some insight on how the American presidential election campaign is being viewed from the French perspective.

Julia Brown, a graduate student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, a top research and public administration school, discusses the focus on personal background versus political background:

JULIA BROWN: Apparently everybody hates Hillary Clinton, which I really can't understand why at this point; and not everybody hates Trump, which I really can't understand why either. The thing is with this election there hasn't really been any debate regarding ideas. It's all been about personalities.

Mathieu Perrot, a French teacher and Ph.D. student in literature at UVa, agrees:

MATHIEU PERROT: Yeah the persona, the charisma is probably more important here than in France, I would say. French people might be more interested in... maybe not the program itself, probably not, but at least, maybe more fascinated by the career or the studies that the person would have made.

French people tend to make analogies between Donald Trump and some French politicians, like former right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy, or Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right party National Front. But French observers see some differences.

PIERRE GERVAIS: I wouldn't compare Trump to Marine Le Pen. I mean I'm no fan of Marine Le Pen, but she's a professional politician and she knows what she's doing.

That's Professor Pierre Gervais, who specializes in American politics and economy at the Sorbonne University in Paris. For the record, the National Front was once led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of current leader Marine Le Pen.

GERVAIS: Actually they got rid of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in terms of behavior, was actually close to Trump. It became clear that they couldn't function efficiently in the French system with somebody who's not at least serious-looking.

Gervais also points out that the French party system makes for a government less dominated by the two main left and right parties, and relying more on coalitions.  That way it allows for more representation and party diversity. Also, the election of party leaders is internal to parties in France, not up for popular election as in the U.S. primary system. So for both historical and sociological reasons, the possibility for a politician like Trump to become the national leader is  less likely in France. Now, would the outcome of this election influence the French one?

PERROT: The election in the U.S. is important for the entire world, that's for sure. Because of the partnership we have with this country, because of the trade we have with the country... And I'm pretty sure politicians in France are watching very closely the debates and how it goes here. I don't know about the coming election if Sarkozy will try to imitate Trump in some ways. Hopefully not!

But according to Professor Gervais and Serena Albert, a marine biologist graduate from the Sorbonne University, this interest in U.S. elections is not that influential:

SERENA ALBERT: I wouldn't say that they influence really... What I hear in the media, or from people that I talked to, they're much more concerned about French problems.

GERVAIS: The French are fairly insular. The little I've read, there's a mixture of sort of fear to a certain extent, amusement, and very little understanding of what's going on. There is this apprehension of... “what would happen if they actually elected Trump?” but since at this point the election of Trump is very highly unlikely. You do get coverage, but not that much.

BROWN: What I'm hoping is, if Trump does get elected, maybe French people will be afraid of voting for our own extreme right party... I'm hoping he's giving us an example of what not to do.

French elections are less than a year away, with the first round coming up in April 2017.  Chloe Bertholon, a French-American business student at UVa, is excited because it is the first year she will be able to vote in both elections.

CHLOE BERTHOLON: I think it is interesting though that the American process is drawn out to be so, so, so long, whereas the French process seems to be much shorter. I told my grandma in France that I was going to be in Lyon for their elections, and she was like “oh yeah, that is coming up, huh,” whereas for us it’s like... the past year, we've been talking about it.

Whatever the American election outcome may be, they all said they were going to miss Barack Obama.

ALBERT: Well, I'm not really really not convinced by Trump, but I'm not really convinced by Hillary Clinton either, so … I think that in any case, it won't be for a better change.