It’s bizarre for me to hear Americans are gearing up for yet another round of elections this November. It feels just like yesterday I was at Harry’s Bar celebrating Barack Obama’s presidential victory. Probably because it was yesterday.
American political terms are short, I know that. But when compared with France’s, they’re internships. And however short Obama’s tenure as President has seemed, Nicolas Sarkozy’s feels that much longer. In fact, it’s as if Sarkozy’s quinquennat (you see it sounds even very old) is slowing down to the speed of his predecessors’ terms, which we all know, resembled more Carolingian dynasty reigns than democratic mandates. Hell, just ask my sister-in-law. She’s lived under a total of three presidents in France, and she’s already 30!
And if you thought their terms were long, French politicians careers are even longer. I’ve been seeing the same faces and hearing the same names since I arrived in France, and that was right after September 11th. For every John Edwards, Michael Dukakis, or Dan Quayle, men who’ve since disappeared into the dustbin of historical losers, there’s always Laurent Fabius and Dominique de Villepin, reminding us that French politicians never die, they just get old….slowly.
In fact, the only way to die it seems as a French politician is to get elected. I’ve been listening to Sarkozy’s obituary, his low popularity rating, and his long list of failures for years now. Granted he hasn’t entered the torpor that was Jacque Chirac’s second term, (which we all know broke records for boringness and resembled more a Boris Yeltsin term than a Mitterrand one) but give Sarko time. He still has two years left!
French terms are like bad sitcoms the networks refuse to cancel, either because they’ve invested too much in the star, or they’re sure audiences need a little more time to figure it out. And honestly, if it wasn’t for the people Sarkozy has hired around him, I would have changed the channel by now. But the cabinet has me watching still. They’re like crazy people you see at a shopping center and can’t stop staring at. Brice Horetfoux’s face keeps getting redder, to the point where he may be the first minister to finish a term with a purple head. Before it’s all over, Rachida Dati may just scream REDRUM! during an interview. And regardless of who falls, Carla Bruni in the end, I’m sure, will still be standing, perhaps next to another future president, her next future husband.
Maybe France should adopt the British version, where leaders can throw in the towel mid-way through, kind of like what Tony Blair did, ceding the place to their underlings. But then again, you risk having weird people who were never elected take office, like one-eyed Gordon Brown, who has all the charisma of a mortician. Wait a minute. I just realized Francois Fillon is the French Gordon Brown, so let’s scrap that idea.
The American system isn’t any better. Presidents have four-year terms, one of which is spent campaigning and one of which is spent building your cabinet and putting tabs on all the hanging folders in the West Wing. That leaves you two years, much of which can be compromised if you lose your majority in congress (which Obama seems to be doing). In the past 24 months (it’s better to talk months then years) Obama’s passed healthcare legislation, banking reform bills, has ended Iraq, yet he’s lost a lot of political capital, simply because many feel he hasn’t changed enough. That’s because we’re used to $300 checks being sent to us from George Bush as a way to jump-start the economy or watching Mission Accomplished staged ceremonies or Saddam Hussein being hanged via cell phone.
Deep down, I think Sarko’s annoyed by Obama, who’s kind of like that new guy at the office who’s done twice as much in half the time. I can picture the two of them during an end of year review with the boss, Obama posting the numbers he’s put up, Sarko in the background saying, “Yeah, but do you have a purple headed minister in your cabinet?”
Maybe it boils down to a relationship with time, and as we all know Europe has a more patient one. The worksite next door to my house has taken three years to complete, yet I’m the only one in the neighborhood who seems to find this bizarre. Why? Because I compare it to when I go back to New York and feel lost simply because “Oh my god there’s a skyscraper where that little deli used to be!” The deli I got coffee from six months ago.
On one side, you have a “results oriented-show me the numbers or you’re out the door at the end of the month” political culture or a “congratulations, welcome to the club” type comfort, where the campaign is the challenge, and governing, “well that’s just boring.”
Maybe on a whole, we have too many expectations in the political process (short and long) and maybe we glorify past terms thinking they were earth-shaking, when it fact, they really weren’t. Kennedy, it turns out, didn’t really care about civil rights as much as he was obsessed with putting a man on the moon (and had Stanley Kubrick shoot a movie to make it look like he did). FDR’s reforms probably wouldn’t have helped us out of the depression had he not entered the war, and Pompidou would have taken a seat next to forgotten Leon Blume had he not built an arts center. Yet that’s the exact lazy thinking that gave me George W. Bush in 2000 when after Gore abdicated, I said “Don’t worry, what could he possibly do in four years anyway?” A lot actually.
Hence the magic of the TV show. When you’re watching, nothing really happens. It’s only when you turn away and go to the kitchen, that something does, and you spend the rest your time, asking yourself “What’s going on?”
Perhaps the next time I’m at Harry’s Bar this election eve, I’ll be drowning my sorrows instead of celebrating, as Americans vote once again for change, simply because we’re addicted to it. My only comfort will be in the fact that for the next two years in France, I still get to watch the same political series and the same cast of characters I’ve grown old knowing. Some things, even purple heads, never change.