In a French cafe, talk about Obama’s reelection

The Café Danton, in the Odeon Intersection at the very heart of Paris, is about as French as you can get. The Danton sits halfway between the Luxembourg Gardens and the Seine River. Next to it stands a statue of Georges Jacques Danton, a celebrated figure of the French Revolution. In front runs the Boulevard Saint-Germain, a street of intellectual legends and political conspiracies along whose banks Jean-Paul Sartre invented existentialism between serial seductions of his prettiest and most promising students.

But as the coffee was poured Wednesday morning, the talk was about America, specifically President Obama's reelection. With a six-hour time difference, the results had come in too late for the morning newspapers. But Paris is a place where people still listen to morning radio shows, and everyone had heard the news.

"I'm happy about it," said Michael Roussel, a light-footed waiter who speeds to work from his suburban apartment before dawn on a motorcycle. "He is getting rewarded for having steered his country through the crisis. I wish we could have done the same for (former President Nicolas) Sarkozy. He tried, too, but now we have a new group and everything has to start over again."

Dominique Orvin, another waiter who sings popular classics to charm the tourists when he is in the mood, expressed doubt Obama's victory would have much of an impact on his own life, governed more by tax increases announced Tuesday by President Francois Hollande's Socialist government. But he displayed a remarkable knowledge of the U.S. system, saying he had expected a closer race given the need for an indirect vote by delegates to the Electoral College and the large number of swing states with no clear preference in pre-vote polling.

"Yes, Ohio went for Obama," he explained confidently. "That made the difference."

Orvin's insight was not exceptional. French people have been treated to a barrage of explanations from newspaper, television and radio correspondents covering the U.S. vote, many of whom went on through the night. And so when a longtime American customer walked into the Cafe Danton, heads turned among the regulars with anticipation of the political discussion that was sure to arise.

The United States remains the most powerful country in the world, and France has to work with Washington to survive. But perhaps history better explains the interest in Obama's win around the espresso cups. Just down the street, in the rue de l'Ancienne Comedie, the Café Procope, founded in 1686, announces in a plaque beside its door that Benjamin Franklin was a frequent customer back in the days when he was discussing politics with the likes of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists.

The durable U.S. constitution, Renaud Giraud pointed out in Le Figaro newspaper, was in large measure inspired by another French philosopher, Montesquieu, who suggested separating judicial, legislative and executive powers to balance one against the other, an idea that has helped the United States attain a stability few countries can match.

"America perhaps is not longer the hyper-power it was during the 1990s, but the fact that the entire planet is still passionately interested in its presidential election says a lot about the special status the United States continues to enjoy in the world," Giraud said.

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Olga Khazan · November 7, 2012