The next correspondent in our series looking at foreign coverage of the US presidential elections is Corine Lesnes of ‘Le Monde’. Once frosty, France’s relations with the US have improved with the arrival of President Sarkozy.
Le Monde’s Washington correspondent, Corine Lesnes, works from an attic in her red-brick house in the northwest Washington neighbourhood of Friendship Heights. She files stories for the newspaper every day, writes a weekly column along with her own blog called “Big Picture”, and makes webcasts for lemonde.fr. The newspaper also has US correspondents in New York and LA.
Monocle: You covered a previous US presidential election in 2004. How does the current campaign compare? Corine Lesnes: The French are now eager for the US to move on from Bush. And the fact that one of the democratic candidates is a woman, and that Barack Obama is such a unique candidate makes it a very exciting year.
M: French politics has undergone an Americanisation in recent years. Your president has been acting out his love life on the national stage and promised to bring American dynamism to France. Does this affect your coverage of the US? CL: It makes more work for us, that’s for sure. For example, when Sarkozy was still married to his second wife Cécilia and she was using the presidential credit card, they [Le Monde editors] immediately turned to me and said, “What kind of budget does the First Lady of the US have? What kind of staff? Who controls it? Who decides?” Then Sarkozy had the task of creating a National Security Council, which was inspired by the US, and so of course they wanted to know about the Security Council in the US.
M: The American Dream and the French vision of life are often at odds. Do you attempt to convey this to your readers? CL: What I try to get across is that things have really changed here. After Sarkozy’s election, the same people who were saying, “France is a country of big government,” saw things very differently. Suddenly you had American think tanks or articles praising the French model for anti-terrorism, or the French healthcare system and the école maternelle [nursery school system]. Of course, jokes and derogatory remarks about France are still being made by the Republican candidates but the real approach has changed.
M: You wrote an article about the so-called Corridor of Shame – a string of underfunded, underperforming, mostly black schools in South Carolina – at the time of the presidential primary there. What did you want to show readers with that piece? CL: I wanted to show the disparities. In France, education is funded by the state, in the US it’s local, so when there’s an economic crisis they have fewer resources and schools are underfunded. If there’s one place you see racial discrimination and inequalities, it’s South Carolina. It’s amazing how there is a lack of criticism about this in the US media.
M: Will a new president usher in a new era of transatlantic harmony? CL: I don’t think things are going to change that much because relations are already good. It’s potentially going to be a little embarrassing for the Europeans because, of course, you can say “no” to Bush; if the Democrats are in power it will be a little more difficult to say no. However, I’m not sure that Europeans are going to want to get more involved in “the war against terror”, and there are going to be the same conflicts about economic perspectives.
M: Are the French in general enthusiastic about the prospect of an Obama presidency? CL: They are very excited. There are, of course, people who relate Obama to the Ségolène [Royal, the French presidential candidate] phenomenon. She was nominated with enthusiasm by the activists of the party. People were very emotional, they went to rallies, she brought in new people, young people – but then it just fell flat. The problem was she wasn’t prepared. I’m not saying that is the case with Obama, but sometimes reality can set in.
M: There are few countries in which the Kennedy mystique has endured as long as in France. Does this influence the way the French see Obama? CL: I remember writing about [Ted] Kennedy. He made this great anti-war speech in the Senate a couple of years ago before the 2006 election and people were saying, “Kennedy’s an old lion, but what does he represent?” Now, suddenly, he is representing a lot because he is endorsing Obama.
M: If you had to call the election now, who would win? CL: I have no idea. The media want Obama, but it’s hard to predict.
M: You say American attitudes towards France have softened, but the last Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, was criticised for being “too French”. What’s going on? CL: I don’t know. Colin Powell [former secretary of state] once said, “We’ve been married for 220 years and we’ve been in counselling ever since.”
The US’s relationship with France
Although France and the US have a long history of alliance – the French fought in the American Revolution and US soldiers helped liberate France from Nazi occupation – relations have frequently been less than cosy. Much of it is cultural, with Americans at times viewing the French as duplicitous and the French seeing their New World counterparts as naive and blundering.
Since the Second World War, Paris has often been at pains to assert its independence from Washington. Tensions between the two reached a high in 2003 when Jacques Chirac staunchly opposed the US invasion of Iraq.
Ties improved considerably with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president last May. Sarkozy has pledged to shake up France’s economic and social framework in favour of a more American model.
Founded: in 1944 after the liberation of Paris as a centre-left successor to Le Temps, which was dissolved by General Charles de Gaulle for supporting collaboration with Nazi Germany. The website (lemonde.fr) was started in 1995.
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