France got a new president today, but even between my hyperconsumption of news & avid Francophile-ness, I only mildly paid attention to the French election.
Most Americans I've spoken to are completely unconcerned and unaware. I've noticed that political disinterest starts at home, and the further away a place or culture the less passion it generates.
Yet I aspire to be a woman & (working) journalist who's seasoned in politics, locally and otherwise. At this point though I feel like the newbie in Primary Colors waiting to get burned.
Tampa Do-Gooder: Please explain the significance of foreign politics to Americans (who may or may not pay attention to politics in their own country)?
Matthew Fraser: Following the Second World War, the United States was unquestionably the main global power, facing a rival only in the Soviet Union. Since the 1940s, the world has been an “American” one. The pervasive influence of American culture — from Mickey Mouse to McDonald’s — is a sign of American dominance. Americans are the Romans of the modern world.
|Oscar on the banks of the Seine, from Fraser's blog This Much I Know|
TDG: To me it seems that it's not so much that Americans don't care, but that they are overwhelmed or intimidated by learning about (including traveling to) other countries. I'd like your input on that thought, as a professor who's lived in multiple countries.
MF: One of the drawbacks to being “Romans” is that Americans are primarily focused on their own concerns and interests, their global dominance has paradoxically engendered an indifference to the world beyond America — at least to the nuances of other countries and cultures. America tends to regard the world in terms of its interests. This causes resentment in other countries, and often leads to the regrettable stereotype that Americans are ignorant and uncultured about the world.
It’s the curse of all dominant nations. The French even today are relatively indifferent to the world beyond France. The French, like Americans, are notorious for their poor foreign linguistic skills. This doubtless can be explained by the fact that France, like the United States, was once a great empire and dominant culture.
TDG: Does the media (both American and foreign press) have a role in educating Americans on global politics?
MF: The American media are largely regarded as being oriented towards “American” stories, and when they turn their attention to the international sphere they tend to see things through an “American” prism. This can irritate people in other countries. CNN was for a long time accused of this Americanization of global news. That has changed to some degree.
Americans are also consumers of American movies, TV shows, newspapers and magazines. The percentage of foreign news and cultural products consumed by Americans is tiny, especially compared with other countries. Again, this is comes with global dominance. It’s very different for American expats living in other countries, of course, but Americans in the United States don’t generally have a large appetite for foreign sources of information and distraction, with the possible exception of elites in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
TDG: What do people living in France think of their new president? Is it a comparable pendulum swing like Barack Obama after 2 terms of George Bush?
MF: The French are romantic about leftist political victories because they evoke France’s historical rupture with the French Revolution in 1789. Since then there have been two Frances: conservative Catholic France, and revolutionary Jacobine France. It’s much more acceptable in France to claim allegiance to the the Jacobine tradition because of the historic importance of the French Revolution and the Jacobine system of republican government France has had for most of the past two centuries.
French Catholic France was discredited during the Second World War after the Vichy episode and Nazi collaboration. This explains why far-right parties like the Front National are considered to be a threat in France, while far-left parties, even Communist, are considered to be a legitimate part of the French political system. [Outgoing French president] Nicolas Sarkozy’s party is between the two, largely Gaullist but also representing the “bourgeoisie” in France, in other words a coalition of conservative nationalists and economic elites. In America, Sarkozy would be a Republican.
In that sense, one cannot compare [new president] Hollande with Obama. In France, Obama would not be a particularly “left” politician. He would be at the center, even a little to the right of center. Francois Hollande enjoyed the support of the Communists and far-left movement. Those kinds of political parties would not even have a voice in American politics.
France and America, historically, are great friends and allies because they were the two great nations born of the Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th century based on universal values about individual rights and democratic institutions. They are also two great nations born of violent revolutions. At the same time, this linkage has also made France and America great rivals, because both nations have aspired to grandeur. France was a powerful nation for centuries, and French the language of international diplomacy, until the 19th century. Since then, the British and Americans have dominated the world. This has not always sat well with the French, hence the familiar resentment in France towards all things “Anglo-Saxons”. These sentiments have deep historical roots. France and America are “freres ennemis” -- brother enemies. It’s an amicable rivalry, but a rivalry nonetheless.