My wife and I spent the last two weeks of the summer vacationing on the French Riviera. We’d visited the South of France before and it was an experience we wanted to repeat. The Mediterranean coast contains some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. During the summer, the sun shines strong and the warm breezes blow day, after day. My wife is captivated by the language, the classic French cuisine, the splendid service, and the tasty, ubiquitous vin de pays—locally produced, light and dry, pinkish-colored wines, made by including the grape skin during the first few hours of the fermentation process.
Besides, I’ve been feeling somewhat sympathetic towards the French of late, given their unremitting struggle against Islamic fanaticism and violence. And, between you and me, the skimpy bathing suits that leave nothing to the imagination are quite entrancing as well.
The area we stayed in, about 20 miles west of St. Tropez, is surrounded by calanques—beautiful rock formations with deep valleys that create a one-of-a-kind coastline, each with its own collection of white sandy beaches set apart by dense pine forests. In the evening, spectacular turquoise and pink sunsets reflect off the bluest of Mediterranean waters, as the sun sets behind the Southern French Alps.
We landed in Nice a month after Bastille Day, the day the French people endured the latest and most horrific act of Islamic terrorist attacks: the mowing down and murder of 85 children and adults, and the serious wounding of hundreds more, during French Independence Day celebrations, along the seaside promenade in this distinctively cosmopolitan city.
Given the hideousness of this attack, we marveled at how quickly the city and the region had recovered. We heard little about the attack during our weeks abroad and were even surprised by the scarcity of security forces and local gendarmes, both at the airport and about town.
However, what we did hear quite often were conversations about a loud-mouthed billionaire who, it appears, the French love to hate: Donald Trump. Trump fits many perceived European stereotypes of America: excess, vulgarity, ignorance, superficiality, and love of wealth. He is seen as a brute who worships money and lacks culture, and a man who can’t be held to his word or trusted.
The French tend to be unpretentious and humble about the money they make. They feel that Trump, on the other hand, can’t complete a sentence without mentioning his net worth or his supposed business successes. His demeanor, seriously lacking in civility and often blatantly rude, is considered particularly offensive and off-putting. Free speech is constrained by laws of propriety in France. Several times during our stay we heard mention that if Trump were a French citizen, he would face prosecution for proffering public insults and inciting racial hatred. Uncultured, racist and sexist, Donald Trump would pay huge fines and would sit in court almost every day.
Trump’s operating style has been branded politics-as-entertainment. His disingenuousness, impulsiveness, and blatant absolutism are creating widespread anxieties. France, as well as most of Eastern and Western Europe, depends on the military might of the United States for strategic defense; just as one would lean on a big brother for security and protection in an ever-changing and worrisome world.
During our last few days in France, I recorded parts of several conversations I’d had, all in response to a question I asked: What do you think about Donald Trump? Following are three answers to my question, edited for clarity:
Alexei is a college student from Russia we met at the beach who is studying in France: “Coming from a country plagued by anti-American propaganda, I am very aware of the ways in which Trump is much too similar to Putin…Trump coming to power would make me feel unsafe in any country I lived in.”
Sophie is a middle-aged school teacher from Paris, vacationing with her family: “I think Trump is a very big threat to harmonious relations between the different kinds of people living in the United States. In a time when accepting people for their differences is becoming vital, a chauvinistic U.S. president would heighten tension, not only in his country, but also abroad. It seems that the rise of the far right is becoming our response to increased diversity, which is scary.”
Philippe is the waiter and part-owner of a local pizza and fish restaurant where we enjoyed several meals: “I think Donald Trump is the result of a broken political system. We are seeing a rise in popularity for many extremist and undemocratic parties in Western democracies. Trump’s voice is being heard and echoed by millions of angry, alienated, and mostly white Americans, who feel that Trump is the only answer to their problems. Scapegoats and scare tactics…The same is going on here now, and in Germany, and even in Norway. I worry about what will come.”