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Translating Politics

Many Americans discover when coming to France that the French have a strong opinion on American politics. Sometimes, the French view can even come off as abrasive or accusatory. It took me a while to figure out that discussing politics here is a national pastime, and that people aren't necessarily always as informed as they appear. Rather, arguing and discussing politics is well, something you learn to talk about. Once at a party this year I had a conversation with a French girl who had spent a year at the University of Pennsylvania. “Young Americans don’t talk about politics…at all!” she exclaimed, implying that this would be a typical topic of conversation for young French people. 

So, on this topic and in light of the recent American election, I’d like to take some time to talk about American politics as viewed in France, then on the topic of politics and current affairs in general in France.

As I said, French people have a very strong opinion in general about American politics. It’s not surprising, given that American politics (and elections) are highly publicized and do have a great impact on the rest of the world. Nevertheless, there is almost always a knee jerk reaction in France to the mention of the words ‘Republican,’ ‘conservative,’ or the state that the French associate with these two words, ‘Texas.’ Putting my own political views aside, on the one hand it’s a shame that the French, who pride themselves on lively political discussion and exchange, would be so clearly biased against a single group. On the other hand, when one looks at typical Republican platforms, they are often incompatible with fundamental French values, like socialist medicine or strong government control and involvement. The French also associate Republicans with American religious fanatics, something they absolutely can’t wrap their brains around. Because of the strict separation between church and state in France, the French view any parties that typically win the votes from evangelical Christian groups as corrupted. 

Quite simply, French politics and the French view of politics work on an entirely different scale, based on different values which would correspond more to what we would consider very ‘liberal’ views in the US. If most French people relate only to one end of the political spectrum in the US, then of course the French are not going to have a very comprehensive view of American politics.    

To return to the idea of discussing politics, I proctor and grade a type of oral exam here where students need to read an article from the press and prepare a 10 minute oral presentation. In these 10 minutes, they need to summarize the article and then give commentary. Their commentary is evaluated on their ability to create a central question, and tie in relevant and recent current affairs from the English speaking world. While I can appreciate the rigor and the level of analysis that is expected from students, the language teacher in me also finds it absurd to train students in this kind of exercise. If one of these students travels to an English speaking country, no one is going to give them an article and expect a 10 minute summary and commentary! 

What I’ve learned, however, is that although the content of this exam may be about the English speaking world, the form of the exam is entirely French. These exams are actually training students how to talk about politics and current events according to French cultural standards. Students need to show a breadth of knowledge on many different topics in the Anglo-Saxon world. In other words, they must appear to know a lot about many different topics, even if their base understanding is weak. 

Some events students talk about often are the election, the subprime crisis, gay marriage, race relations, our education system, etc. Many of these topics have become ‘buzz’ words, to the point where I almost feel like students are ‘name-dropping’ current events. I choose to call this name-dropping because, as I’ve seen, some students don’t always have a thorough grasp of these issues. Sometimes they even have a very skewed view of the US (two phrases I’ve heard so far that I had to correct: “In the US, education is less important than in France” and my favorite “Is the US still a backwards country?”).  

Reflection on these exams has enlightened me as to why, at times, I’m uncomfortable when talking to French people about American politics. When these discussions happen, the form of the discussions is typically French, and usually emphasizes what my students are training to do, that is, this cultural ‘name-dropping.’ Just imagine the potential for cultural misunderstanding when a French person is very enthusiastically trying to show me the extent of his/her knowledge of American politics, while the very form they use (this ‘name-dropping’) I find somewhat annoying and pretentious. 

In the end, when political discussions do come up with anyone, whether it’s in my classes or at a dinner party, I do my best to remind people that the United States is a very big country, with an extremely diverse population, and with a very different history from France. Most importantly, talking about politics in France really involves much more than just translating words (Democrat, Republican). In involves an entirely different way of communicating, one that unfortunately doesn’t always translate well.    

Comments

  1. 'Is the US a backward country?' - !

    That said, this does remind me of a debate I once tried to organise at a French business school where one half of the room took the rôle of the democrats and the other that of the republicans. Given what you point out in this article, I shouldn't have been so suprised to find that the 'republican' half had great trouble finding anything to say in their favour about themselves at all...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Haha, yes the role play situation doesn't surprise me at all.

    And actually, I think the student's sentence was in fact: "Is the US STILL a backwards country?"

    ReplyDelete
  3. We might be backwards but if Princess Diana had her accident here, she would probably still be alive.

    ReplyDelete

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