Explaining Inexplicable American Politics to the French

Text messages and phone calls from my French friends started invading my cell phone around midnight on Election Day.  The messages all subscribed to the same theme of extreme surprise and overwhelming curiosity.  “How could Trump even be the nominee?”  “He just won Florida – does that mean he could win the election?”

Texting for political explanations.
Texting for political explanations.

“Will I need a Visa to visit the States now?”  I shut my phone off to gain some extra time.  But I knew, as an American living in Paris, that the French wanted answers.  Answers that could be understood.

Then, the next day, as if explaining how Donald Trump won the Presidency wouldn’t be a daunting-enough task, I saw that Hillary Clinton won the majority of the popular vote.  That meant I had to EXPLAIN the Electoral College, the “only-in-America” voting system, to the demanding French.  You see, when you’re the only American they know here in Paris, they think you know everything.  But I don’t.  So, as a first step, when I finally got my head cleared, I went with the numbers.  Now, that’s something everyone can understand in any language – at least that’s what I thought.

I started returning my phone calls and messages with statistics.  I told the curious French that 46.9% of eligible American voters did not vote (this was less of a voter turnout than in 2012 and 2008).  I told them that Trump got 279 electoral votes; he needed 270 to win.  Clinton got 228, so she lost the electoral votes.  Now, that could look like a big win for Trump.  But, for the popular vote, where every person counts, Hillary beat Trump by 238,087 votes.  That means that Trump got 59,704,847 and Clinton received 59,942,934 votes.

Historical statistics.
Historical statistics.

If the US election followed French rules, Hillary would be President.  And, by that same token, Al Gore would have been named President instead of George W. Bush in 2000 since Al Gore had more than half a million votes over Bush.  I gave my French friends the numbers and they all asked the big question, “Why don’t you Americans change the voting system?  Using the majority system is fair and easy.”

Using the majority system might be easy, but changing the electoral college requires an amendment to the Constitution.  Even though the electoral college began in 1804 and times have changed since then, US lawmakers have only tried once to change it to a direct vote election.  That attempt failed in the Senate by only by 2 votes.  And that was in 1934.  There is another movement, started by John Koza, a computer scientist and lead author of the book “Every Vote Equal.”  Professor Koza has proposed legislation to change to a direct voting system state-by-state, thereby circumventing the need for a constitutional amendment.  Each state would pledge its votes to the winner of the popular vote.

John Koza is the lead author of "Every Vote Equal".
John Koza is the lead author of “Every Vote Equal”.

So far, eleven states have adopted this – not yet enough for repeal of the electoral college.  My French friends scratched their heads in disbelief.  I was getting tired of feeling responsible for the US electoral woes so I changed subjects.

“You know, we voted for some interesting issues on the Presidential ballot,” I told them.  I mentioned how some states voted for the legalization of marijuana.  Now that took them by surprise.  “What, you can do that in America?  Vote for marijuana and the President at the same time?  That’s strange.”  Strange as it may seem, I explained that on November 8th, California, Nevada and Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana use.  Three other states – Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas – voted yes to medical marijuana.  I threw another number at them.

America votes green!
America votes green!

Now 21% of Americans live in a state where there is legal recreational marijuana.  “Put that in your pipe and smoke it,” I added, quoting an age-old expression my mother used to say (though, I must admit, she was never referring to marijuana!)

Talking about the marijuana referendum issues with my French friends was so much more fun than trying to explain the electoral college.  I won’t have to try and deal with our voting system for another four years, when its ugly head will reappear for the next presidential election.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy helping French friends plan their future vacations to California, Nevada or Massachusetts.

Can a French-Speaking Dummy of Donald Trump Save a French TV Show?

“Les Guignols”, a political satire show starring life-size muppets on French CanalPlus cable television network, went away about six months ago for lack of audience; lack of pertinence and just plain old out-datedness. However, it came back with a new boss, a new look and a new hero. The new boss is Vincent Bolloré, a wealthy French businessman who initially said he would get rid of “Les Guignols” show but then changed his mind. The new look is one of globalization, including a fast-paced opening theme song that flashes head shots of political leaders from all over the world.

Donald Trump as a muppet on "Les Guignols".
Donald Trump as a muppet on “Les Guignols”.

The new hero, at least one of them, is none other than Donald Trump, a Republican hopeful for the American presidency. What the heck is he doing there?

Mr. Trump is not the only new dummy on the show. In their quest for extending their media reach, Canal Plus has also added muppets of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. “Les Guignols” show is hoping to expand its audience by gravitating towards

A dummy of Kim joins Donald Trump on the French muppet show.
A dummy of Kim joins Donald Trump on the French muppet show.

the United States. They think that presenting American subjects tailor-made for public ridicule will up their ratings. The show will be translated into English and Spanish and will eventually be exported. Now, how ridiculous does this whole idea sound? Canal+ starts with an English-speaking Donald Trump politician wannabe. They turn him into a French-speaking dummy who says outrageous things and acts in an unflattering manner. Then, they translate him back into English and try to sell that to the American market! Why would Americans buy that? We already have the real thing we can make fun of. (Hmm…maybe they should try Canada).

I, however, was curious enough to watch one of the episodes with the Trump dummy. It definitely re-enforced my belief that this is one export that will never fly. What is funny (like in political satire funny) here in France is not always funny in the USA and vice versa. Same goes for political correctness – definitely not a global quality. I am posting the following video as an example but, just in case you cannot watch it in the USA (lucky you), I’ll explain what happens.

Coiffure extrême de Donald Trump – Les Guignols du 20/01 – CANAL+

The opening scene takes place in a business-like waiting room where several 30-something muppet men with shaved heads are sitting quietly. A woman carrying a small dog with longish, blondish hair walks in. One guy gets inspired; steals her dog and a fancy razor blade that just happens to be hanging next to her and hightails it to the men’s room. Once there, he shaves the animal and manages to paste the dog’s hair on his own head. He combs it over to the extreme right (of course) and goes back to the waiting room. Trump comes out of his office. When he sees the candidate who has adopted his hair-do, he points and shouts, “Wow, that’s great!” The voiceover now closes in on Trump proudly sporting his comb-over and says in French, “The extreme hair of Donald Trump – the worst hair-do in history.”

So, as you can see, it barely passes for funny in French and will certainly not be laughed at in the USA. His hair is not the problem though it doesn’t surprise me that the French would make that an issue. It’s a cheap, easy shot. Another point is that shaving a stolen dog is not politically correct in the USA. The skit would be banned for that reason alone.

My advice to the producer of “Les Guignols” would be to drop the Trump dummy. He won’t expand the show’s audience. There is really no time for that since Donald Trump won’t be in the political spotlight for much longer.

Kanye West muppet has staying power as a 2020 US presidential candidate.
Kanye West muppet has staying power as a 2020 US presidential candidate.

Keep Kim and Kanye though – they’ve got staying power. Kanye already announced his plans to run for President in 2020.   That means Canal+ has four more years to figure out how to make that funny.