Election (and Arnold) captivate the world's press

Editors worldwide seem more fascinated by the California vote than even a presidential race.

The Austrians have landed. So have the Brits, the Japanese, the Germans, and even a Finn or two. Foreign journalists are invading the Golden State, sensing a sterling opportunity to expound on all things American: democracy, immigration, celebrity, and natural-born wackiness.

Back in Geneva, citizens are listening to sound bites of pornographer candidate Larry Flynt on the radio. Londoners have woken up to helpful reminders about what a "chad" is, and the French have learned that there was once a TV show called "Diff'rent Strokes."

"It's going to keep me going for months," says a gleeful Chris Ayres, a correspondent for The Times of London. He uses an expletive participle and the word "brilliant" to describe his joy at hearing of Schwarzenegger's candidacy.

But California's difficult straits were actually making news even before Arnold Schwarzenegger threw his loincloth into the ring. In Switzerland, where deregulation of the power industry is a huge topic, radio listeners have heard reports about California's electricity crisis. Sober-minded German and British newspapers, meanwhile, have monitored the state's slumping business climate and tried to explain why the home to both Hollywood and Silicon Valley could go belly up.

Then things went "fou-fou-fou" (crazy-crazy-crazy), as the French newspaper Liberation puts it. The recall got on the ballot, followed closely by two immigrant candidates - a muscle-bound man the British press likes to call "Arnie" and a Republican-gone-populist named Arianna Huffington, once described by a British reporter as "the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus."

Across Europe, radio listeners began marveling over Schwarzenegger's thick Austrian accent, which is detectable even to non-English speakers. "He even has a funny accent for Germans because he's Austrian. He has this little robot-like thing even in German," says German Public Radio correspondent, Kerstin Zilm. "There's a lot of people who make fun of him, but there's this fascinating thing that he seems to achieve a lot of stuff that he wants to."

In European newsrooms, editors went fou-fou-fou over the recall. But Jens Eckhardt, a West Coast correspondent for the German business newspaper Handelsblatt, is less than ecstatic. He has no interest in Arnoldmania, although his normally strait-laced bosses back in Düsseldorf have caught the fever. "I wrote a whole story about the about the recall without mentioning Schwarzenegger, and I got this feedback, 'Are you crazy? You've got to mention Schwarzenegger!' I'm trying to work the business angle, but for name recognition I have to mention him."

In San Francisco, Swiss National public radio correspondent Susanne Brunner has been producing daily stories about the recall since Schwarzenegger's entry. The Swiss "know who he is: the guy who plays Conan the Barbarian and the Terminator," Ms. Brunner says, although she's not sure if they also think of him as "Kindergarten Cop."

The Swiss have been fascinated by American politics since the Florida election debacle of 2000, Brunner says. Direct democracy is of huge interest to the Swiss. "We vote on fishing laws and once tried to get rid of our Army," he says.

But in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe, foreign editors are a bit fuzzy on recalls. A few think they know exactly what the one in the Golden State means for the future. Clearly, they've been studying those Electoral College numbers. "In Germany, they get these strange ideas that if Schwarzenegger wins, it's Bush [back] to the White House" on the wings of victory in California, Mr. Eckhardt says. "I say, 'No, no, no, pipe down, this is what it is.' "

Elsewhere in Europe, newspapers are busy forecasting the future of democracy in the US. The recall "is only one expression, among others to come, of deep American discontent over their political institutions," intones Liberation, the leftist French newspaper. Andrew Gumbel, a correspondent for The Independent newspaper of London, predicts recall fever will sweep the US.

In Austria, the foibles of American politics have taken a back seat to the American way of life. Schwarzenegger, a hometown boy who has made good, is the talk of the country of 8.1 million. "He came as an immigrant to the United States with literally no money, he had to work on his way up, and he lives what we think of as the American dream," says Barbara Gasser, correspondent for the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung and the Krone Hit radio network. "We still think everything is possible in the United States."

To one journalist, the prospect of a governor Schwarzenegger has a different type of global meaning. The election is a test of whether California voters will "fall for" a plot to put a movie action star in charge of a state in crisis, Gumbel says.

"In other words, once this is all over, either we'll be able to conclude that the world has become irretrievably superficial, or we'll be able to conclude that it hasn't," he says. "It's quite a watershed moment."

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