How I Survived my French TV Talkshow Debut
Elliot Murphy and son on stage with Bruce Springsteen
What me politics? Although I have been living in the land of la gauche et la droite for over 18 years, strangely enough I am rarely asked my opinion on politics. Actually, this probably has more to do with that wonderful dying French art of suave formality and aggressive politeness than with no one caring what I have to say on the subject. At least I hope that’s the reason. But finally my day of reckoning came in a big way indeed when I was invited to join a popular TV night-time discussion show on no less than the national French channel FR3. Of course, over the years I’ve appeared on plenty of music TV shows and have been out there hawking my own music and books on all sorts of media platforms but this was the first time that my opinion on something other than myself seemed to be in demand. And in some mysterious manner, which only the French Academy must comprehend, my manhandling of their langue sacrée must have reached an acceptable level for such an invitation to be extended to me. Whether this was because my bad French has gotten better or proper French is in a process of decay I don’t know. But I slid under the radar and with a few days’ warning I was scheduled to appear on Ce Soir (ou Jamais!) – hosted by the trés sympa TV personality Frédéric Taddei and featuring cultural personalities discussing the great political events of the day. Needless to say, Victor Hugo would be proud of me.
It was a warm Monday night in June when the FR3 car picked me up at my Paris apartment. I slid into the back seat and was busy practicing French verb conjugations when we pulled into the studio parking lot and a TV camera was immediately stuck in my face. Apparently, I was already being filmed just getting out of the damn car. TV verité I suppose. Then without further ado my handlers scooted me right into the very well lit studio and sat me down to have many layers of makeup applied while offering me Champagne which I declined. Needless to say, I was
The topic of that night’s show was Barack Obama and his recent triumph over Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. For some reason the French media seem to believe that this means Obama has already won the national election. Do they know something I don’t know? Or is it that celebrated Gallic lack of patience? I was quickly introduced to my fellow panelists, who included both Americans and Frenchmen, sadly an all- male crew, and all of whom spoke French much better than I. TV is the land of the quick or the dead and it soon became apparent that if I was going to leave any words for posterity on that night’s broadcast I had better say it fast, baby! This realization led to perhaps my most important decision of the evening: put everything in the present tense and let them figure it out for themselves.
Just the week before CNN had done a special series of programs on the changing face of today’s France. I had seen a particularly interesting interview of Marie Drucker, a very attractive newswoman on FR3, who really got down to the crux of the current French dilemma when she told CNN that the French still couldn’t decide if they wanted to be revolutionaries or conservatives and they better make up their mind if they truly wanted to change. And voilá, when I walked on the Ce Soir (ou Jamais!) set Marie Drucker was standing right in front of me and looking even more beautiful than on my TV high def screen, so I took my shot and introduced myself and congratulated her profusely on her CNN appearance. Apparently she was thrilled by my support because she told me that I had “made her day.” I could have told her the same thing myself.
Then Marie quit the scene and it was showtime. Some cool cocktail music was played and I was introduced as a “folk rock icon” (I liked that) as well as a novelist (which is rare). My fellow guests were distinguished fellows themselves and all with impressive bona fides. Then without any warning Frédéric Taddei turned to me and asked if the election was all about the economy. I didn’t expect to be first up to the plate, but I managed to remind everyone of the famous James Carville sign at Bill Clinton headquarters that said “It’s the economy stupid” and I doubted that much had changed with the concerns of average Americans since. What I found interesting was how the French panelists would always try to compare the American political scene with their own: Democrats and Republicans = Gauche et Droite, which is not the case at all, in my opinion. François Mitterrand had joined forces with the French Communist party to win his first presidency. Can you imagine an American Democrat doing the same?
Of course, with Obama being the topic, everyone went on and on about race relations in America. Yves Roucaute, a well known somewhat neo- conservative French author and philosopher, said that until 1960 the black vote in the USA was Republican. I tried to disagree but it was like a Ford Pickup truck trying to race a sleek new Peugeot. I was out of my league. Soon Yves and Alain Mabanckou, an Afro-French professor and author of a book about James Baldwin, began their own pissing match – imagine William F. Buckley Jr. and Bill Cosby going at it. For my part, I said Obama represented a new breed of black politician and a clean break from the southern black preacher tradition of Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson.
It was almost taken for granted that Obama’s high charisma quotient crowned him as the new JFK by everyone on the panel except me. I said he was the new Ronald Reagan because he made Americans feel good about themselves again. After the long dark night of the Bush regime Obama was pushing the same It’s Morning in America breakfast cereal-like promo as Reagan had done. I also felt there were parallels to be drawn between this election and the Carter–Reagan one: Iran hostages/Iraq War and inflation/rising gas prices etc. Leroy Woodson Jr., a charming and erudite fellow American expatriate and ex Washington Post photographer agreed with me. Perhaps the only congenial consensus of the evening. Thanks, Leroy!
It was an hour show but there never seemed to be a moment when fewer than three people were talking at once, telling each other that they knew absolutely nothing about Barack Obama or US politics and that they were in a tradition of people who also knew nothing. Rarified insults are a venerable tradition and as the French are also world-class interrupters this deadly combo leads to lively TV talk shows and loud dinner parties. Of course, if you do this on Fox TV in America, you get punched out.
The hour went zipping by and suddenly it was over like an auto-race stopped in mid-lap and Frédéric Taddei turned to me and asked gravely if I thought Obama would win. I said, “I sincerely hope so,” but wanted to ask him when Marie Drucker was coming back…