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Religion, socialism, lobbies - French expats puzzled by US midterm politics
Houston, Texas, one of the most diverse cities in the United States, is home to over 6,000 French people, many of them working for the French oil companies headquartered in the city. They are among the outsiders looking in, as Americans vote in Tuesday's midterm elections.
The French consulate of Houston has records of 5,736 French people registered in 2017. The vast majority of them are here temporarily, sent by their companies for only a few years.
But several hundred are more permanent residents, like Odile, who moved to the US in 1978 and has been in Houston for nearly 20 years.
What has struck her the most about American politics is how much religion is involved.
“Religion and politics is constantly mixed, and people don’t realise it,” she says. “You tell them and say, ‘Oh, no, we have a separation’. No you don't!”
Abortion and religion
She says this is most clear on the subject of abortion, which she sees as decided on religious grounds, rather than civic or medical grounds.
Odile became a US citizen in the 1990s and since then she has become involved with the Democratic Party, although, she says, most French people in Houston do not get involved in politics because they are not staying long.
In working with the Democrats, she has also been surprised by the aversion of any position that could be construed as socialist.
“Democrats for a long time needed to be centrist and couldn't be anything more, even if they wanted to,” she says.
Sanders and socialism
This was a similar observation from a blogger who goes by the name of Politicoboy, a 32-year-old French man who has been living in Houston for four years
He has been writing about American politics since 2016, when he was struck by the appeal of Bernie Sanders, an avowed Socialist, who ran against Hillary Clinton during the Democratic Party primaries.
“I thought [his positions] would not work in the US and that he was too much to the left,” he says, adding that he was also surprised by how far to the right Donald Trump's voters moved.
He has found that his time in the United States has shown him that Americans are more progressive than they appear to the outside.
“Even Texas is much more progressive than I thought,” he says. The Democratic Party is backing progressive positions that are supported by most people, like single-payer healthcare."
And yet, he argues, the electoral system prevents progressive policies being adopted.
“The way that there are two senators for each state, so the most progressive states are underrepresented,” he says. Plus, the amount of money in politics means minority ideas get pushed through, even against the will of the majority.
Power of lobbies
Money in politics is a big issue for Mikael, who moved to Texas for work five years ago. Politicians, he says, are extremely influenced by lobbyists in the United States.
“In France, of course, there is corruption but it's not as visible as here,” he says.
He also finds the political discourse in the US to be too harsh. He recalls seeing a plane flying over Houston recently with a banner that said “No Beto, Socialism Sucks”, referring to the Democratic senatorial candidate, Beto O’Rourke.
“Why do you write sucks?” he asks. “For me, as a French person, it's a strong word.”
And just saying socialism is bad adds nothing to the conversation, he believes. “They say socialism sucks and it's bad. OK, so what is good? That’s the question at the end.”
Being in the United States has solidified his existing scepticism about career politicians.
“We need those people but we also need CEOs, workers, people from unions – a mix of people to do politics,” he says. “It just emphasises that feeling that politicians are not the best thing to manage a country.”