The French love to discuss President Barack Obama. Of course, the French really just like discussion in general and the average French person knows far more about international news than the average American. In almost every single one of my elementary classes I have been asked if I personally know President Obama. What American eight-year old knows of President Sarkozy? Anyway, one question I have been asked repeatedly is why Americans don’t want free healthcare. The French are utterly puzzled at our outrage at government handouts. I tried to explain that it is a complex issue. It is not that we are not appalled at the price of healthcare, but it is that we cringe at everlasting paperwork, higher taxes, fewer options, and frankly, in “basic” healthcare. Americans love diagnosing things, and braces, and probably unnecessary procedures, and speedy treatment, and these are often not included in free “basic” healthcare. We are not a country who truly wants basic everythingg nor do we want to pay for non-basic anything.
The discussions have led me to ponder the differences in our governments, particularly in our heads of state. Please note that I say the French love to discuss President Obama and his policies, but that does not translate into loving him. The culture here is one of eloquence and verbal dexterity, discussion and debate. President Obama is a topic rich in debate possibilities. (And at G20 summits, Obama and Sarkozy are some of the only leaders with younger wives, though supermodel and singer Carla Bruni
Sarkozy does turn more heads than Michelle, despite her adorable girls and Bo, the presidential pooch.) When President Obama won the Nobel peace prize, protestors like the ones in this picture popped up all over Paris. Just today I saw an angry message scrawled across a metro wall attempting to decry his acceptance of the prize. Unfortunately, the message (I suppose meant for Americans) was in such poor English it was almost unintelligible. But an incensed Frenchmen had had his say.
Perhaps it is the passionate nature of the people that lends to French political figures an immunity that American politicians do not have. There personal lives do not dictate their political success. When heads of state have affairs, or messy personal lives, I don’t think the French feel as personally offended as we do when our President errs. This explains why the French President is allowed some emotional outbursts, such as when President Sarkozy in 2007 walked out of an American interview when the interviewer started asking pointed questions about his failed marriage and ensuing divorce.
Of our American President however, we expect different. We are not a country that goes on strike at the drop of a hat (I was late to work one day this week because of a “movement sociale”) or has a history of violent coup d’états and revolutions. We are a country that prides itself on assimilating different people and cultures and being a melting pot of nationalities, ideas, and preferences, Thus we elect a President to incarnate this, and in that aspect, I can venture to say that maybe President Obama is a good symbol. However, I think he has lately and embarrassingly failed to live up to his symbolic potential. I have been following President Obama’s treatment of conservative news figures and I feel disappointed by his actions. I can openly admit that appearing on an unabashedly conservative new program could be uncomfortable, which is probably why the president’s decision to appear on all the major news networks was unprecedented. He chose to make a bold move, and thus should have been prepared to deal with the consequences. I think one of the reasons that American presidents are not often ousted from office, and never driven out by revolutions, is because despite our preferences, we respect the office and the fact that come what come may, the president is truly our president, not just the president of those who voted for him. I do not agree with a lot of President Obama’s policies, but if I was given the chance to meet him, I would be honored to because he is the President of the United States. I would venture to say that even the most conservative commentators would probably saw the same thing. By refusing to appear on a new station directed towards conservatives, President Obama seems to broadcast not only that he has the power to decide what is news, but that he is not interested in being the president of a large percentage of the nation. I believe his reasoning was that on a station like FOX he would not be able to truly speak but would instead spend all his time fighting of provocative questions and attacks. Maybe this is true, but he is the president, who doesn’t always have the luxury to avoid uncomfortable situations. We elect a president to be our voice on the international sphere. How is President Obama to defend American policies against the rest of the world if he shies from defending them against other Americans?
If we were French, FOX would go on strike or the conservatives would organize a nation wide manifestation. But we aren’t French. In their book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow observe that “Paris’s streets are not just for transport; are a political forum.” In America, I think the news is one of our largest political forums and I should hate to see that censored.