Among the thousands of students beginning classes this week, a surprising few gained admission to their university by analyzing a speech of Barack Obama. They are students at the flagship public institution for engineering and the sciences in France, the Polytechnique. Entrance requires passing nine examinations, including an oral on general culture. In this competitive research environment akin to that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this exam often proves decisive, opening or closing the door for applicants to the Parisian school. This time around, they were tested on the Philadelphia speech of an American presidential candidate, in French.
The oral is a defining ritual in French education. Students must demonstrate in the moment not only their sharp thinking, but their eloquence. Typically they are given the work of statesmen -- Victor Hugo speaking in favor of Italian independence or Jean Jaurès, the fiery socialist who spoke on behalf of striking workers. Or they square off with that of intellectuals who are not French -- Victor Klemperer writing against totalitarian language in Hitler’s Germany. Yet no matter the culture or the historical period of the text on the table, the challenge remains the same. In less than 30 minutes, improvise an argument about a work that they are receiving for the first time, and field questions about it with aplomb. For the class of 2008, why choose Obama’s political writing?
One of the Polytechnique examiners from the University of Paris system, Jean Delabroy, had heard a singular voice when Obama was introduced on French radio some 18 months ago. Like many, he was intrigued by the senator of African descent, and in the heat of the primaries, began reading his speeches that appeared in translation as well as in their original in the major newspapers. Long before Obama became a European jet-setter in Maureen Dowd’s jargon, he represented, in the view of the French press, an orator standing in the line of a classical tradition. While Democrats clamored for him to substantiate his call for change, Delabroy decided that the American’s language, rich and complex, merited explication.
Choosing Obama for this year’s oral was good pedagogy to my colleague, who directs the department of literature, arts, and film at the University of Paris-Diderot. But to me, and I imagined, to many colleagues outside of France, it was an unusual move, and thought-provoking. When he told me about the long days of questioning the students, I wanted to find out why Obama could serve as a model speaker for them.
The choice had everything to do with the strategic force of his public speaking, Delabroy explained. He’s a reflective thinker, an example for Polytechnique candidates of articulating a political position persuasively. The opaque tones of a young voice made his text an even more interesting case.
What exactly did these students discover speaking about Obama’s speech: “Two hundred and twenty one years ago in a hall that still stands across the street”?
Class entwined with race in the day-to-day bargaining of life in America. They thought about Obama describing in one breath the working and middle class, black, brown, and white. They examined the ways he outlined their similar dilemmas: keeping a well-paying job, educating their children, staying healthy. One student was moved to think further about social class, as a mirror blinding many Americans of different racial backgrounds to what they have in common: poverty. In a piece that was quickly named in America “the race speech,” the students in France found Obama puncturing the illusion of a class-free society, confronting the taboo subject of economic inequalities.
In the process, Delabroy their examiner, recognized a public figure who was critical of his own and loyal. He heard someone who did not silence the contradictions that filled the statements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but on the contrary sought to understand them even while he judged them severely. Obama spoke, Delabroy discovered, in order to reckon with the conflicted experience of black activists who spoke out in the 60s and 70s, and he did so on behalf of his generation -- of all backgrounds -- and of the next. Obama’s openness was telling: He took on his personal quandary over his former pastor so as to deepen the analysis of the legacies of slavery and immigration. And he spelled out the record to give the electorate choices: how will you respond now to divisions that are so deep-seated?
Delabroy’s understanding was tinged with longing. Today in France, the Left is made up of an old guard called in mock affection, the elephants, and a new one still searching for its voice. It is hard to identify a well-spoken public figure who is grappling with all the repercussions of race.
The surprise of the Polytechnique oral for many outside France is, precisely, the minor importance given race. There is no more current cliché about the French than their difficulty in working through the tangle of race relations. With the rioting of thousands of young men and women of African and Arab descent in over one hundred urban areas during the fall of 2005, the malaise intensified. The official government commemoration of French slaves the following January 2006 could hardly begin to answer the need for a full debate on the question. And the trompe l’oeil of a rainbow coalition in the present government of Nicolas Sarkozy has something perverse about it. The Polytechnique candidates are coming of age in a political era when their minister of justice is a woman of Moroccan and Algerian descent, and the foreign affairs secretary with the human rights portfolio, a Senegalese woman; but it is also a time when the Right has yet to articulate fully a cogent argument about institutionalized barriers limiting the development of young people of color from Martinique to the neighborhoods of Toulouse.
Studying Obama’s Philadelphia speech makes, then, for a timely lesson. It is tempting to imagine these students in France taking his language as an incitement to consider the situations they encounter. How could his analysis of legal discrimination and the contradictions of racist behavior help to advance debate in their country? When the candidate visited Paris for a day in late July, the French-speaking Internet lit up with hopeful queries whether he could show them something more of liberty, equality, fraternity.
This generation in France is primed to analyze clearly and openly their Republic’s original sin of slavery, the social and economic conflict it continues to create. Perhaps it will present a leader capable of addressing the anger over education jeopardized and jobs blocked in towns that burned across France in 2005.
In June, a few Polytechnique students were glad to have had the chance to think through Obama’s speech. They thanked Professor Delabroy for making their oral such a worthwhile exercise.
For those of us on American campuses, the many possible lessons are different, but no less challenging.
As I prepare to go into the classroom again in the battleground state of North Carolina, I wonder, for one, when will we make the political writing of contemporaries abroad a part of our general culture and debate?
Helen Solterer teaches French literature and culture in the Department of Romance Studies at Duke University. Jean Delabroy teaches literature at the University of Paris-Diderot.