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The Foreign TV Watch

Election Day found me across the Atlantic in France, but like any good American, I was glued to the television. The only difference was the time (six hours in advance of New York) and the faces, voices, and languages on the screen. CNN International, BBC World, Al Jazeera English, and dozens of French stations were at my disposal.

Let’s start with France, where, unlike on CNN, they didn’t need gizmos ranging from holograms to Magic Maps to smell an Obama victory before the sun rose in America on Tuesday. On the pay station Canal +, I watched a typical French talk-show: An unremarkable looking host, a motley panel of guests, and a small studio audience scattered around the edges of a stage so aggressively bright and shiny it looked as if it had been hosed down by a team of exterminators. A cockroach would have died just looking at it.

“One has the feeling that one is going to vote for the president of the world,” said Ariel Wizman, a raven-haired journalist, actor, and musician. Did he want a president of the world? Was he voicing an unspoken wish? Hard to say. The best part of the show was an illustrated segment on America’s first ladies and--in the words of the male host--“the primordial importance of women.” Ah, yes. It’s at a moment like this you realize you’re definitely not watching an American program in which, for some reason, everyone is speaking French.

The “primordial importance of women,” especially those who are “First Ladies,” seemed to boil down entirely to how they look and dress. Two women--one black, one white--were even called upon, live in the studio, to model the kind of outfits Cindy McCain or Michelle Obama might wear to the inauguration. There was also a lengthy sketch on how France’s own First Lady, ex-super model Carla Bruni, has lately taken her sartorial cues from Jackie Kennedy. You had the feeling the French were much keener on the latter than their own Queen of the Elysée.

Cut to commercial. Commercials, in my experience, are generally a pleasure in France. They are narcotically soft-voiced and soothing. Few if any are about bladder problems, impotence, high blood pressure, impending heart attacks, Alzheimer's, and enigmatic pills you should ask your health-care provider about. They generally feature lush foreign landscapes, beautiful cars, and nubile women. I scanned the dial. Almost everywhere I looked throughout the day, the news was about the final lap to the White House. “Les fameuses ‘Swing States.’” “Pour John McCain,c’est pratiquement un ‘Mission Impossible.’” It was the most exciting election in history, yet paradoxically, also one of the most predictable.

As morning wore into afternoon and afternoon into night and then morning all over again, I stuck by the TV, flipping channels. On BBC World, the super-smooth Sir David Dimbleby--floppy white hair, specs half-way down his nose, accent so upper-class it was positively rad--quoted Hemingway on Illinois: “A state of wide lawns and narrow minds,” while quickly assuring viewers this was a reference to “white” Illinois. There were some technical problems with the sound when the Beeb’s reporters called in from various states. “It’s one of the sadnesses of television,” Dimbleby observed. “You can see everyone but you can’t hear anything.” Footage of Sarah Palin appeared as night fell on Arizona. “In that gloaming you may be able to see Palin – if you’re sharp-eyed,” he said with a touch of lyricism.

Ted Koppel, Christopher Hitchens, and other luminaries popped in and out, but the highlight of the evening (or morning) was a mano-a-mano between the historian Simon Schama and former Ambassador John Bolton--almost the only Republican I saw anywhere who belligerently stuck up for his own party. The two men were a study in contrasts. Bolton sat upright as a fence post, white mustache strapped across his face like a No Entry sign, while the feline Schama bobbed and jabbed in his stylish black suit.

“Since we’re about to elect our first African-American president, I take it that criticism of the United States as a racist nation will now end, right?” Bolton demanded at one point. Schama slithered and squirmed and prevaricated before finally uttering a doubtful “Maybe.” “I can’t win,” Bolton declared as the sage Dimbleby looked on.

Things were even more fun on the various French stations, including the English-language version of France 24, the country’s proud riposte to CNN. Shakily but delightfully helmed by the honey-blonde Bond girl manquée, Andrea Sanke, who was so keen to talk to so many people she could never decide who to actually converse with, the evening was a feast of technical glitches, verbal pratfalls (“This election is being watched in the wider Middle Weast”; “India [Indiana] has usually gone Republican in the past”), and technicians blocking the camera.

The studio, all gleaming glass and icy blues, looked like an avant-garde bathroom in which you couldn’t tell the washbasin from the toilet. A bemused-looking Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s, was on, seemingly for hours. Occasionally he got to say something. Almost everyone interviewed on this and every other French station was a professor of some sort, which was a refreshing change from American television, even if they were all strictly gauchiste. One of them, a serenely smiling old-timer interviewed by a Fox-worthy blonde, put it most succinctly: An Obama victory would improve the “mood” (l’humeur) of the world.

This morning I decided to give this thesis a test by looking out the window onto my temporary corner of France. Gray sky, drizzle, umbrellas, greeted my eyes. A bus rolled past. The white, black, and Arab faces inside--resigned, introverted, half-asleep--looked the same as ever.

Brendan Bernhard has been a staff writer for LA Weekly, and was the television columnist for The New York Sun until its tragic demise.

By Brendan Bernhard