"What then is this American? This new man?"
The question came in 1782 from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, a French writer/farmer in New York. A lot of smart French folk, like Mr. Crevecoeur, have been "onto" America from the start. Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting in the 1830s, said American democracy, while imperfect, was the wave of the planet's future.
Europe's early observations prefigured a concept now known as American exceptionalism: Did the New World, with claims for equality, the end of kings, a refuge of possibility, embody a special destiny for humanity?
In Europe, Barack Obama's election has revived the concept. US exceptionalism has largely been seen negatively here in recent decades, a messianic rationale for use of power, in Vietnam and Iraq, by a nation assuming special prerogatives.
"The idea of exceptionalism is viewed as a smoke screen for American imperialism," says French writer Dominique Moisi.
Yet the election of Senator Obama has has turned the "exceptional" discourse in Europe on its head – suggesting the identity of America is not as fixed as it had seemed, that its "exceptionalism" has many meanings, and that America is exceptional as a force in the world whether it chooses to be or not, for good or ill.
"We can no longer say this is just hypocrisy," says Catherine Durandin at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "When Obama walked through the Rose Garden with President Bush, this was not a smokescreen. It happened. In no other country in the world is such an election possible. I think Obama is aware of this, and will use this exceptional situation in making policy."
No refuge in anti-Americanism
The campaign transfixed and occasionally amazed French thinkers. They closely parsed Obama's March 18 Philadelphia speech on race, with its calls to move past old racial wounds to form a more perfect union, and his Nov. 4 acceptance speech. Many in Europe thought America would not vote for a black man, but felt the campaign was a democratic example that challenged a diversifying Europe.
"The Americans were choosing not just a president, but an identity," says Mr. Moisi. "And that forces us to choose as well. Now we have to define ourselves without resort to anti-Americanism. That's something new."
"The decline of representative democracy is not irreversible," adds Zaki Laidi, a French intellectual writing in Le Monde.
Many French say that American exceptionalism must now be considered through other lenses. The neoconservative impulse in Washington in recent years, described by retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich in his new book, "Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," is associated with an evangelical passion to spread democracy, to "remake" the world, by force if necessary. But after Nov. 4, the New World example is taking on the meaning of President Lincoln's "last, best hope of earth," or Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a country that evokes universal values by example at home.
For political philosopher Pierre Hassner at Sciences Po in Paris, the election shows that the US "is exceptional no matter what it does. For now, the US is more powerful, rich, and well-meaning than others, so can it be an ordinary power? If America were a great power like any other, people in Europe would be very sorry. They want it to be exceptional. I am a Jew who lived under Nazis and communists in Romania. So I say, 'Thank God for America.' But in the last years, it has been difficult to reconcile this."
Paris intellectual André Glucksman slightly mocked European enthusiasm for the Democrat. While Americans gave Obama a "decent" 53 percent majority, the axis of Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Rome, and London "cultivated an absolute North-Korea style, quasi-religious 'Obamamania,' with 84 percent," he notes.
The exceptionalist concept dates to Puritan John Winthrop's "city on a hill," a New Testament idea famously picked up by Ronald Reagan that envisions a land of justice and freedom from coercive power. It signified a radical break with old Europe. Crevecoeur wondered whether the New World would produce a new kind of human being. De Tocqueville found 150 years later that "the mother has more authority" than in the European family, an inkling of later change.
The many uses of exceptionalism
Exceptionalism has been put to many uses. Some are called selfish, arrogant, parochial, ideological; others are grand, liberating, experimental. And they include everything in between. Strains include jingoistic patriotism and the Manifest Destiny often cited to move west and brutally civilize native Americans. They also embrace Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the Americans he calls "this almost chosen people," and the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause. It is read into the civil rights movement as well as the US-led fight against communism. In Europe, President Woodrow Wilson's effort to create a League of Nations after World War I picks up the idea; European diplomats were not accustomed to the US president's push for principles that eclipsed national power-broking.
The late author David Halberstam popularized the concept in "The Best and the Brightest," arguing the origins of the contested Vietnam War were rooted in an Eastern seaboard elite's exceptionalist effort to block the Soviet expansion.
French intellectuals, particularly the Marxists in the 1960s, portrayed a symmetry between America and the Soviet Union in their exceptionalism. "[French president Charles] de Gaulle used to say the natural inclination in Europe is toward 'Russia,' which he never called the Soviet Union," comments Ms. Durandin. "He used to say America has no destiny, because it has no memory and no past, whereas Russia has a great history. But we see now a different strain in America."
Leading Paris writer Bernard-Henri Lévy saw two visions of America on Election Day: "The McCain-Palin duo regarded "American dream" as a golden age to rediscover. Obama sees it as a new age to be invented, a model ever in progress … a frontier to explore. In this sense, he is much more faithful to that pioneer spirit that is part of the greatness of America."
Enthusiasm – but nuance as well
To be sure, the Paris take on the American election is nuanced, complex, French. Debates include: Is the election a one-off brought by the economic crisis? Does a 53-46 victory signify a change of heart? Will an Obama administration alter the structures of Washington?
But the tone is different. Both the Gaullist right and the skeptical left are affirmative. The meaning of America to France's crowded ethnic banlieue, among Africans and Arabs, is noted by writers François Durpaire and Jean-Claude Tchicaya.
In the teeming black suburbs, Obama is "lived through as a compensatory myth," they find. "Deprived of any networks, not the sons of daughters of [elites], they see the ascent of that son of an African immigrant … as the symbol of a social mobility they do not experience."