|"That you Joe? I'm jus' chillin' out an' doin' a J. You?"|
This was not lost on Marie Brunerie, a French specialist on American politics who posted an interesting article on the Nouvel Observateur's Plus section this morning. And "fun" was at the top of her list of cultural and political differences between the French and American ways of conducting politics.
Brunerie regrets that French politics are so relatively dreary and lacklustre and that autoderision is non-existent. There were many amusing moments during the American campaign and she chose to illustrate this by mentioning both Romney and Obama's often amusing and light-hearted appearances on late night TV shows such as Jay Leno's Tonight Show, David Letterman's Late Show and Jimmy Fallon's Late Night show, during which Obama, who was named 'Slammer-in-Chief' for the evening, and himself slow jammed the news with the resident band.
Now I'm not a betting man but I'll gladly bet my best bottle of Bordeaux that we won't be seeing anything like that in France for a long time to come. Can you imagine Hollande or any other French politician hangin' out an' havin' fun just days before an election? And how about the witty comments that both candidates came up with during their back-to-back speeches at the Al Smith Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria?
Brunerie is not the first French commentator to lament the lack of warmth and humour in French politics of course, and the glaring fun quotient difference between French and American politics and elections jumps out of screens and pages and lands in the lap of any honest French journalist or citizen who follows American elections.
If wit was....food, politics is a banquet in America and it is stale bread and water rations in France, a country where poiliticians think fun means sarcasm, mockery, derision and insult. This is a country in which dozens of magistrates and judges paid for by taxpayers have to constantly deal with an average of a couple of dozen slander and libel cases which have been brought by politicians against other politicians.
I am reminded of the particularly graceless and tasteless remark which NIcolas Sarkozy aimed at François Hollande during their televised debate between the two votes at the last election. Referring to the condescending 'Mr joker' nickname given to Hollande by his Socialist rivals he said "this isn't a joke competition." And Hollande himself seemed to abandon any humour he may have had before he became a candidate when he lost a lot of weight to avoid being the butt of cruel jokes about his portly appearace.
He did this because he realised that humour and being relaxed are not winning tactics in French politics and he went on to embrace his new nickname of 'Mr Normal', earned because his revised and much more seriously sober demeanor was welcomed by French voters who had had enough of Sarkozy's more brash and bling-bling style.
His political advisors had persuaded him that the French want their presidents to be seen to be above the fray and conform to the Gaullian and Regalian image of being "the first among all French citizens." One even said that being president involved "an almost Jupiterian dimension. And Jupiter doesn't laugh, he rains fire down upon the world."
And who indeed will ever forget the mocking tone used by François Mitterand during his debate with Jacques Chirac during the 1988 presidentail race? He responded to an opinion offered by Chirac with the cheap and juvenile jibe "you are absolutely right Mister the Prime minister." Then there was the abysmal excuse for a debate between Front Nationale leader Marine le Pen and left-wing loudmouth Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A litany of insult and ignominy, I related it here.
But it isn't only during campaigns that French politicians lack humour and grace. It's the same story when the battle is over and the guns go silent. Compare Ségolène Royal's petulant foot-stamping tantrum call for the French to take to the streets to protest on the evening she she lost to Sarkozy in 2007 to the elegance and generosity of John McCain's speech after he was beaten by Obama in 2008. The same contrast is to be seen between Sarkozy's sulky take-my-ball-home 'that's it I'm quitting politics' reaction after losing to Hollande and Romney's gracious concession speech yesterday after he had learned that he had lost. But first prize for the worst ever bad loser in modern French politics goes to Giscard d'Estaing. Here is the ludicrously pompous and insulting manner with which said "au revoir" to the nation, got up, turned his back, left the room, and left a contempt-laden empty chair behind him after losing his presidency to Mitterand in 1981.
Cynics and weary sneerers will doubtless say that all the wisecracking and courtesy is a smarmy put-on and that it is all designed to garner votes. They are right in some repects and in absolute terms of course, but it's not because someone doesn't like someone at work because they beat them at badminton that they cannot be civilised and polite when they find themselves in the same room. That's not hypocrisy, it's a way of ensuring that whatever people's differences, it is important that participation in society - and politics - should be about mutual respect as well as winning, and losing, graciously.
Besides, those same sneerers and cynics are also the first to complain about the deleterious manner with which politicians conduct their debates. They cannot have it both ways.
I would like to believe that despite the cut-and-thrust and high stakes in politics it should still possible for French politicians to do much more to respect the institutions they represent, respect each other, respect themselves and, most of all, respect the public, who are entitled to more than the name-calling, petty insults and childish slanging matches which replaced political debate here long ago.
And a good way to start would be for them to take themselves less seriously. Politicians here should be setting an example when it comes to debating issues of national importance and the occasional dose of humour would help to grease the wheels.
So c'mon François, you're the president so why don't you set the ball rolling? How about a dose of autoderision to help you explain your U-Turn on VAT? After all, like Obama in his first debate, you loused up so 'fess up. Maybe you could wear a grass skirt and a tiara to work tomorrow? How about a quick quip about the end of your presidential honeymoon? Give us anything that will put a smile on our faces for once.
After all, god and his dog knows we have precious little to smile about right now....