Why is France fascinated by the US elections?

Un bureau de vote à Durham, en Caroline du Nord, le 3 novembre 2020.
Un bureau de vote à Durham, en Caroline du Nord, le 3 novembre 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Despite recent terror attacks and Covid-19 pandemic, French media is giving front page coverage to the US elections. America has huge economic weight, it is France’s largest foreign trading partner, but France also sees some of its own social problems mirrored in American society.


“When America sneezes, the world gets a cold!” goes the adage which, by the way, began life as “When Paris sneezes, Europe gets a cold,” back in the day when Napoleon was a force to be reckoned with.

The US may be increasingly “challenged” by China but few can doubt its dominance in the global economy.

What happens on 3 November, some 6,000 kms away from Paris, will have a knock on effect here in France.

And French media is making the most of that.

French public television’s election special on France 2 is tellingly titled: “The election that will change the world”.

Analysis of the race between incumbent Donald Trump and rival Joe Biden made the front page on mainstream national media on Tuesday: “The shock of two Americas” (Le Figaro), “The End of a nightmare” (Libération), “A turning point for the US” (Le Monde).

Data by the French Audiovisual Institute (INA) showed French media gives far wider coverage of the US elections than any elections in Europe. In 2008, with the arrival of newcomers John McCain and Barack Obama, the six main evening news broadcasts in France featured seven subjects each day. Even in 2012, when there was less interest, INA logged some 476 reports on the US elections.

Frustration at not being able to vote

“The influence is proportional to the economic, political and military power of the country” US specialist Nicole Bacharan told INA’s media review.

As the world’s biggest power, the head of Nato and the EU’s main trading partner, the US has a direct impact on Europe Bacharan explained, adding there was a form of “French frustration” at not being able to vote in such a crucial foreign election.

French media’s extensive coverage offers some, albeit virtual, compensation.

“The French often have the impression that they know the US, it’s in their [collective] imagination,” Bacharan said.  “And Europeans are asking themselves today: what impact will America in crisis have on us and will these crises make Europe more vulnerable and isolated on the international scene?”

Biden or Trump?

It’s still too early to know exactly how a Trump re-election or a Biden win will impact France but for Jean-Marc Huissoud, geopolitics spécialiste at the Grenoble school of Management, Biden would better serve France’s diplomatic interests at least.

“Biden would stabilise the US administration, make it less jolty than Donald Trump’s," he told RFI. "If Biden is elected I think we could expect a slightly more predictable government: less excessive, more political, less media-oriented.”

It would, he said, likely be more serene but he guarded against thinking a Biden presidency would bring about radical change vis à vis France.

“Biden’s campaign programme is just as protectionist and isolationist as Trump’s and although the form is different his speeches echo the “make America great” slogans," Huissoud said. "If Biden were elected America wouldn’t become a big fabulous power in the service of the world overnight.”

Europe the foe?

Trump has poured scorn on Europe, calling the Europe Union America's foe in 2018. More recently the introduction of trade tarriffs on goods imported from Europe hit French winegrowers head on and took a toll on the European aircraft constructor Airbus.

A Biden victory would not guarantee an end to trade disputes, but they may be a little more gentlemanly said Huissoud.

“Biden doesn’t despise Europe as much as Trump, he doesn’t see it as an economic enemy, so there might at least be the possibility of sorting out a number of disagreements and to have more exchange.”

Paris accord

Donald Trump has famously taken the US out of the 2015 Paris accord on climate change. And no matter who wins, that will come into effect on Wednesday.

But Biden has vowed to rejoin the agreement should he get elected.

That could be good news for big French companies like Veolia and Suez that are working in greener more sustainable energies and technologies.

“We have the savoir faire and we’re ahead in terms of both reflecting on and developing new technology in this area,” said Huissoud. “A turnaround on the Paris climate agreement would clearly be beneficial to us.”

Among those who stand to gain from another Trump term are French companies working in the States.

In 2017 4,800 such companies, employing 678,000 people, made France the biggest foreign employer behind the UK and Japan. Companies there have benefited from much-vaunted tax cuts under Trump, but which a Biden administration would raise.

“Such a situation could be a bit more complicated for companies that specifically chose to go to the US for fiscal reasons,” Huissoud acknowledged.  “But if they went there to conquer new markets then the impact on them will be fairly limited.”

A mirror to society

Over and above how the election results could impact France economically, French media are also cashing in on a certain fascination for a turbulent US society.

In the early 2000s, with wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, French media still gave international relations plenty of coverage. But the election in 2008 of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, brought the issues of race, race relations and police violence to the fore.

French television in particular now devotes an increasing amount of time to social issues, recognising itself in the tangled web of women’s right to control their own bodies, the place of racial minorities and police brutality all of which have rocked the US since 2012.

Such controversies “offer us either a mirror on what could happen here, or act as a contrast,” US specialist Thomas Snégaroff  told INA. “They end up here, sometimes after a slight delay, and a generation of French activists are now taking some movements in the US as models” he added.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app