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Talking Obama in Paris

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on November 15, 2012.

I like doing author tours — they’re a lot easier than writing — though I’ve always craved more glamorous settings for discussing my work than, say, New York/D.C./California, where the scenery is too familiar, or Munich, where I once found myself imprisoned in a hotel room by a publisher who seemed determined to reinforce my stereotypes about hyper-efficient German business practices. Last year I had hoped to visit Rome — I practically begged to be invited — but my publisher said it wasn’t worth my coming, since I don’t speak Italian and TV producers were reluctant to do simultaneous translations.

But three weeks ago a happy confluence of events launched me on a high-intensity book tour in Paris. There is no language barrier, since I’m half-French and speak it fluently, and no money issues, since a French magazine covered my travel expenses.

I was schooled in dealing with media by some very tough American trainers, but France is quite different when it comes to talking in front of a live audience and/ or on TV/radio. Sound bites are not de rigueur.

My tour is shaping up, as my publisher puts it, like “a government minister’s calendar.” In P.R. terms, that’s a good thing, as my dossier is packed. My new friend Todd — we seem to agree on everything — meets me Monday morning at Le Select on Boulevard Montparnasse to advise me on how to present myself to French interviewers and audiences still infatuated with Obama. Make sure, he tells me, to present my left-wing credentials at the outset so that no one mistakes me for a pro-Romney stooge, or an agent provocateur for the right. This is more complicated than it appears, since “liberal” in America generally means left and liberal in France most decidedly means right.

So being a left-leaning liberal, such as I am, is a contradiction in terms. Fortunately, I vote in both French and American elections and can say that I voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche in the first round last May and the Socialist François Hollande in the second.

But some TV and radio interviewers seem stunned. How can I possibly criticize Obama from the left? Indeed, the female host on BFM TV announces at the end of our segment that I’m still voting for Obama, in spite of everything negative I’ve written. I’ve said nothing of the sort, but, being polite, I don’t contradict her.

On Wednesday morning I appear on a dual TV/radio show, carried by the private network RMC and hosted by a man said to be very “people,” which in French nowadays means mass market. But this guy is no dummy. He tells me before we start that he’s banking the ads on either side of a twenty-minute interview so that we don’t get interrupted. What?!: Twenty minutes without a break is an eternity in advertising-soaked New York. It’s a better, straighter interview than most “serious” interviews I have back home.

Now begins the whirlwind. The American right would have you believe the French are over-protected layabouts with no work ethic, but the two Italian-surnamed Frenchwomen who control my life for these four days would give even the Germans a run for their money. With military precision, I’m shuttled from TV studio to radio studio, newspaper interview to photo shoot, usually minded by one of them. If I go somewhere on my own, they’re always there before I arrive; any doubt that I’ll make the next engagement, and they hire a motorcycle taxi.

Earlier in the day, a taxi driver tells me about a grisly accident he witnessed involving a motorcycle messenger, and my moto-taxi chauffeur senses my trepidation. Paris driving is not for wimps, but the chauffeur, after wrapping me in a long raincoat and fitting my helmet and visor, says he carries cameramen on the Tour de France bicycle race so I shouldn’t worry. Officially, moto-taxis are not allowed to weave in and out of traffic, but it’s tolerated nevertheless, and we snake our way through 15th Arrondissement traffic jams in thrilling style.

I can’t help myself and make the mistake so many mid-list authors commit: I look in vain for my book at the lovely Librairie La Hune, on the Boulevard St. Germain. Worse, amid the other books just out on Obama, I spy one by the historian André Kaspi with a title distressingly similar to mine, Barack Obama: “La grande désillusion.” A saleslady offers to search, lies down nearly on her stomach, and digs out the store’s one copy. Now, with the enemy Kaspi in my sights, I feel the stress of Anglo-Saxon market competition — the economic model supposedly so hated by the French. I head for another TV show expecting to hog the limelight, but in the Green Room a trim, middle-aged professor introduces himself: André Kaspi.

He doesn’t look too happy to see me, either, and I discover that my rival is criticizing Obama — from the right! Emmanuel Todd’s training serves me once again: There is no mistaking our positions once I announce my support of Mélenchon/Hollande. Off camera I compliment Kaspi for his “intelligent” critique of Obama, and he replies, without missing a beat, “How do you know I’m intelligent?”

God save French exceptionalism.

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