It would be wrong to portray French interest in the US election as universal and deep. Still, when I ordered a beer at the bar of a Paris café yesterday evening, the other patrons, hearing my American accent, hurried over. "Did you remember to vote?" one asked.
Then there were all the parties. One small street, the site of the famous Harry's New York Bar, among other watering holes near the Palais Garnier, was closed off and turned into a crowded block party, complete with TV screens tuned to CNN. The French Senate opened its doors at 3 am on November 5 for its own election party. Various universities held colloquia at dawn to discuss the results. The media coverage was, of course, intense. "The United States: Will They Dare?" blared one headline over a picture of Obama.
In the run-up to the vote, there was also evident popular interest. Bernadette Buffet, 65, a French teacher in a Paris middle school and an Obama enthusiast relaxing with a book in the Jardin du Luxembourg on the afternoon of election day, said she had been following the race closely all along. "And I've already put the champagne on ice," she added, believing, correctly as it turned out, that yes, "they" would dare.
But some commentators tried to dampen expectations for an Obama administration. Jacques Attali, an economist who advised François Mitterrand and produced a report on the "liberation of growth" in the French economy for Nicolas Sarkozy, told French radio before the vote that Obama's program is too focused on domestic affairs--and that it's too expensive.
"He'll either have to abandon the program, or raise taxes--or it will have to be the Europeans who again finance the Americans' extrication from this crisis, as has happened for the last fifty years," groused Attali.
And Dominique de Villepin, Colin Powell's old nemesis at the UN Security Council, told the Journal du Dimanche that an Obama victory didn't mean France "should reinvent Atlanticism."
However, the intense discussion during the run-up was but a prelude to today, to the emotion that the reality of Obama's victory has unleashed, and this has to be understood in its context.
During the roughly ten years since I started living on and off in Europe, the United States has not been seen as a force for progress. Europeans have been certain, justifiably or not, that progress, in any broadly defined way, does not really come from the United States. About this there was a sense of both disappointment and pride (because it meant that Europe was more progressive, by default), and until today, that was the only climate of European opinion I had ever experienced.
But today I received the following e-mail--and it is emblematic of others I got--from a French student in a political science course I teach here. "I'm so proud of your country!" she wrote.
"I just realized that since I've been aware of the world and especially the USA (perhaps since I was 12 or in 2001, so 7 years ago...), Bush was always the President. You can imagine the consequences on my perception of your country!
"I can't believe what happens! I can't believe he achieves this wonderful and unlikely bet!
"America is back!"
I had never heard anyone in Western Europe express this kind of thing before, in any context. Today I heard it from several people, not all of them young.
If France's political elite seems likely to maintain a sense of realism (as well they should), it's because they are trying to figure out how to deal with Obama as a policymaker and diplomat.
But the rest of the French aren't necessarily looking at Obama's policies. They're looking in wonderment at the culture that produced him, at the people who put him in the White House. In short, they're looking at us.