France Tracks U.S. Presidential Election

The U.S. presidential contest is proving to be one of the most exciting in years — and not just for Americans. The primaries and caucuses are being closely followed in France. The French say they see a chance to re-engage with the United States, after years of estrangement during the Bush administration.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Perhaps it's because many in France have stopped liking their own president -Nicolas Sarkozy's ratings are in the basement - perhaps it's because France itself nearly got its first woman president. Whatever the reason, freedom fries are forgiven. The French can't get enough of the American presidential race, as Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: For the last six months, 23-year-old journalism student Pierric Laurent (ph) has been keeping a daily blog on the American presidential election.

Mr. PIERRIC LAURENT (Journalism student): Most people in France would be very happy to see either a woman or a black president.

BEARDSLEY: Laurent says traffic to his Web site has shot up phenomenally since the primary season began in January, because people are fascinated by the candidates, especially the two Democrats.

Mr. LAURENT: Maybe it's just a stereotype, but I think French people still think that's part of the American dream, like this kind of thing can happen in America and it's great.

(Soundbite of French newscast)

BEARDSLEY: French television has covered every primary. The popular daily newspaper Le Parisien even conducted a national opinion poll. When it was published back on Super Tuesday it showed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton nearly neck and neck.

Robert Alfajule(ph), owner of a Paris video store is a Hillary Clinton supporter. He says Clinton is much more impressive than last year's French female presidential contender, Segolene Royal.

Mr. ROBERT ALFAJULE (Owner, Paris video store): (Through translator) Hillary Clinton represents the best in America. She's dynamic, radiant, she knows what she's talking about, and she makes you believe in things. If we'd have had her against Nicholas Sarkozy she would've beaten him.

BEARDSLEY: But now it looks increasingly like Alfajule is in the minority. France seems to be falling in love with Barack Obama. There's a fascination in France for a black man who has made it this far in American society. His story has some people from the suburban housing projects in France, where French racial integration has largely failed, asking where is our Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of cafe)

BEARDSLEY: At a café table looking out on a drizzly Paris morning, Samuel Savit(ph) plans the activities of his support committee for Barack Obama. Savit says if Obama is elected it will improve America's image throughout the world.

Mr. SAMUEL SAVIT (Obama supporter): It will change the way of seeing the United States. You are not just an hostile country, but you are a multicultural country, very open-minded and modern, and really more than other countries.

BEARDSLEY: Newspaper editorials say much of the enthusiasm for the Democrats is a response to eight years of an unpopular Bush administration. There's a desire here for a new relationship with America, and for many French people that means a new party in the White House.

The French don't understand the GOP, says Pierre Tulag(ph) as he sips his beer at an outdoor café on the Champs-Élysées. His group, the Association of Friends of Republicans is trying to change that. Tulag supports the Iraq War and says only a President John McCain can protect the West from the Islamist threat.

Mr. PIERRE TULAG (French Association of Friends of Republicans): I like John McCain because he will be tough on the war on terror. I think it's important to show all the world that there is people really wanting John McCain to be the next American president, because he's not only the American president, he's the leader of the Free World.

(Soundbite of French newscast)

BEARDSLEY: While there was some TV coverage of McCain's visit last week with President Sarkozy, it was Obama's speech on racism that dominated the nation's attention, leaving some pundits to observe that France was now in the grip of Obama mania.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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