Alex Massie

The View from Montparnasse

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In Paris, Byron York ponders the foreigners' view of the American presidential race:

“But why wouldn’t you vote for Obama?”

I’m having lunch with an Obama supporter at La Coupole, the venerable brasserie in Paris’s Montparnasse neighborhood. The woman who asked me that question, along with her fiance, has come to discuss something else, but the talk inevitably comes round to the U.S. presidential race. And the question here, as all across Europe, is:

What reason could there possibly be for Barack Obama not to be the next president of the United States?

Put another way, why would anyone vote for John McCain?

Well, leaving aside the fact that plenty of American conservatives seem to be struggling to find good reasons for voting for McCain (rather than against Obama), there's an easy answer to this. Foreigners always take a more simplistic view of these matters than natives and this is, I suspect, doubly so with respect to this particular election. That is to say, foreigners look at this election from the point of view of a hedgehog while Americans, naturally, are foxes.

The view from overseas is that there are two acceptable candidates (John McCain being vastly preferable to, well, just about any other Republican), each of whom would, the view is, be a considerable improvement upon the current President. That being the case, the outsider takes the perfectly rational, understandable view that, given the choice between two non-disastrous candidates, they would vote for the black fellow.

None of this is terribly surprising or shocking. Nor, despite the occasional whiff you get of this stuff, is it really a mark against Obama that the rest of the world would vote for him, given the chance. It's merely that the symbolic power of a black president is, if anything, even stronger to foreigners than it is to Americans themselves. Who, in Britain or Germany, cares about the candidates' plans for healthcare? Exactly.

Of course, American conservatives will view the matter differently. But some of them too, I suspect, will not be as disappointed by an Obama victory than they would have been had McCain been defeated by a white, male Democratic candidate.

Even so, I would have thought that York could perhaps offer better reasons for supporting McCain than the Boumediene case. Some elements of the european reaction against Guantanamo are overcooked, but the American right's insistence upon defending everything that has happened at Guantanamo and, worse, taking a perverse pride in the base the more it is criticised by Democrats and foreigners is, well, baffling.

Naturally York's Parisian companions also touch upon race. As York describes it:

We went round and round without reaching any agreement on much of anything. And then things went downhill a little further when the talk turned to the subject of Obama and race. She told me that in France there isn’t the racial segregation one finds in the United States.

I had to wonder about that. I saw almost no black faces around us in Montparnasse, but the day before, in a part of Montmartre, I saw almost all black faces.

And what about those almost entirely minority suburbs on the outskirts of Paris? Could it be that there are residential divisions of racial, ethnic and religious groups — nothing dictated by law, just residential patterns — in France, too? Is it segregation in the U.S. but something else here?

And what about politics? An article in The New York Times a few days ago discussed how there is “one black member representing continental France in the National Assembly among 555 members; no continental French senators out of some 300; only a handful of mayors out of some 36,000, and none from the poor Paris suburbs.”

So here in France they are very, very excited about Barack Obama, but have made it somewhat unlikely that an Obama of their own will emerge.

Well, up to a point. It is true that many europeans have a rather simplistic view of race in America while remaining rather too blase about the challenges of immigration and assimilation. But York's argument is, nonetheless, less convincing than it might seem.

Yes, there

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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