The view from Europe

Salon correspondents in Amsterdam, Paris and Munich report on the local reaction to President Clinton's speech.


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Salon Staff
August 19, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Brent Gregston reports from Amsterdam:
Thanks to globalization, Europeans and Americans are now divided by a common culture. They read the same news, only with different emotions. Europeans cannot stop laughing at Clinton any more than they could stop crying in the days following the death of Princess Diana. After looking down on it for so long, they have plunged headlong into the American media circus. Clinton's one-man show is receiving equal time with the worst terrorist act in Irish history and the collapse of Russia's currency.

Amsterdam and all of Europe's other capitals are hard-wired to the Clinton sex life -- except for Moscow, where people are forming lines several miles long to change their rubles into dollars. Clinton is the world's most powerful leader, the gendarme du monde and the most joked about man in Europe's several dozen languages. Once, Europeans struggled to understand. Now they have given up and humor is their weapon of last resort.

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For an American in Europe, it is all very embarrassing. My wife, an architect, spent the day trying to avoid her Dutch colleagues. "I'm sick of it," she said. "I'm the only American in the office and they surrounded me. They're laughing at us all the time. They say the Clinton scandal is ridiculous but never talk about anything else."

"What sort of anatomy do Americans learn in school?" they asked her, over and over again.

Clinton has become the man with a thousand epithets. "Clinton's an asshole," a TV producer told me, "but a great liar -- in other words, a good politician." I asked how he would he feel if Wim Kok, the Dutch prime minister, confessed to having oral sex with a 21-year-old intern?

"At his age? We'd all be proud of him."

Clinton is also a "Gobshite, a wanker and a cutehoor" according to an Irish curator who works in Holland. "I wanted to stay up till 3 a.m. just to see him cringe on television."

"So, he should resign?" I asked.

"Are you kidding?" he responded. "He's pro-choice."

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American euphemisms don't work any better in translation than in the original. The Dutch for Clinton's inappropriate behavior -- onbetamelijke fysieke relaties -- sounds more like a mutation of the Ebola virus than oral pleasure. German unangemessene Beziehung also falls short of onomatopoeia. No wonder that many European editors prefer to use the word "blow-job" untranslated in their articles and editorials. The French relations diplacies makes perfect sense when illustrated by a cartoon of Clinton in the French daily Libiration: He has his fly open and is flashing an Achilles heel in place of a penis.

Of course, Europeans are not only laughing. The Dutch, ever practical, worry about the economic fallout from Clinton's Achilles penis. Stockbrokers complain the market would be a hundred points higher if it were not for Clinton. On Monday afternoon, they crowded around a Bloomberg terminal in the stock exchange hoping for details of Clinton's grand jury testimony. My neighbor, a housewife, seems to share their resentment: "We'll be in a recession tomorrow if we fire everyone who's had sex in the workplace."

Laughter often ends in disgust. Europeans recoiled from their cable television screens when CNN used the word "historic" to describe Clinton's broadcast. "What sort of history do Americans learn in school?" the Dutch are asking me, over and over again.

In an editorial today, Amsterdam's leading newspaper, Het Parool, suggests that Clinton could still salvage a place in history by doing something about the crisis in Russia. The fall of the ruble threatens to plunge the country with the world's largest nuclear arsenal into anarchy. Reminding us that there is more to worry about in the world than antics in the White House, the newspaper notes a disturbing resemblance between this crisis and a truly historic event: the collapse of the German mark in the 1920s, which destroyed a fledgling democratic government and brought about Hitler's rise to power.

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From Gentry Lane in Paris:

Today was the first day that "Le Clinton-Lewinsky Scandale Sexuel" beat smog reports as the top story on French television news coverage. Once French foreign correspondents rattled off the facts of Clinton's public and court appeals, the cameras turned back on Paris and the American community embedded within. The French seem infinitely more curious about the American public's fascination with the Clinton scandal and the surrounding media feast than with the actual events that started the whole hullabaloo.

Harry's New York Bar, which has been an American watering hole since World War I, carried full coverage of Clinton's public speech on a television perched up in the corner. Expatriates gathered to watch and drink, while French news cameras waited to catch their reactions. When asked, Americans were quick to state their moral opposition to Clinton's illicit conduct.

It was the sure-fire thing to say in order to get on TV. And it worked.

French news coverage did not feature any Americans who claimed indifference or even amusement about the situation at hand. Apathy and suppressed laughter were left to impromptu person-on-the-street interviews. Every Parisian interviewed essentially said that they didn't understand and/or didn't care about all the fuss.

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With regard to the print media, the French, who are eternally more interested in themselves, have given the Clinton scandal a surprising share of ink. Le Figaro, one of the more reliable Parisian newspapers, put Clinton on the front page, although his photo was dwarfed by the one announcing the death of writer Julien Green. An accompanying article listed statistics regarding public opinion polls and a quick recap of the grand jury confession. Three-quarters of the third page was devoted to background information under such titillating titles as "sexe, mensonges et video" -- "Sex, Lies and Videotape."

In general, the French seem to be sympathetic to Clinton and the humiliation of his predicament, while they regard the whole scandal as ridiculous. Columnist Franz-Oliver Giesbert led his Figaro front-page column declaring that one "doesn't know whether to laugh or cry" for Clinton.

For the French, of course, presidential sexual behavior ranks considerably lower on the list of priorities. Former French President Frangois Mitterrand's illegitimate daughter merely raised eyebrows. Chatty salon gossip ensued, but any French opposition to their president's indiscretions elicited a far cry from the frenzied state that the American press and public seem to be in. Although it's impossible to generalize about the moral codes of an entire country, nobody will disagree with the fact that the French (despite their largely Catholic population) are more liberal as a society than we who hail from the Land of the Free.

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From Mary Beth Maslowski in Munich:

In Germany on Tuesday morning the news of Clinton's "inappropriate relationship" with Monica Lewinsky took second place on radio and TV to the announcement that the Ministry of Labor has had more success in arranging work for the unemployed this year than at the same time last year.

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Perhaps if German elections weren't looming in September, this politically motivated labor message wouldn't have usurped the news of the American president's illicit liaison. For print media, the story broke too late to even reach the morning papers; however, afternoon editions placed the story prominently on the first page, and news Web sites and videotext (a non-graphics television news service) were quick to print the entire text of Clinton's speech. By the time the 8 o'clock news rolled around, the admission and its ramifications got more air time and German journalists and political experts were quick to comment on what they deemed as obvious efforts by Clinton to soften and double-talk his way out of seven months of lying.

Oddly enough, Monica Lewinsky is suddenly conspicuously absent from the musings of political pundits. Now the first lady is the woman to watch and wonder about. On a Bavarian radio station this morning, a prominent psychologist has predicted that Hillary Clinton will survive the "Sturm" and continue to stand by her man.

Whether the focus is on Clinton, his wife or Lewinsky, this omnipresent media coverage seems slightly out of place in Germany. In the months leading up to Monday's mea culpa, all print media from Der Spiegel (a slightly left Newsweek equivalent) to the yellow-press Bild have been featuring almost daily pictures and speculative stories. This seems odd, since most Germans will readily admit that a person's private life, homegrown or not, is his or her own business.

And while almost everyone knows that several prominent German politicians have had dalliances of their own, the media doesn't usually touch the stuff, and they've had the chance. A few years ago, when SPD member Gerhard Schroeder (Kohl's biggest threat in the upcoming elections) divorced his wife for a younger one, the spurned woman took her tale to TV and the newspapers. However, no one seemed interested and she soon faded into the background once again.

To get an idea of what the average Johann or Jana on the street thinks about the Clinton affair, you have to ask them yourself. Broadcast media here like to play sound bites of what Americans are saying about the latest twist in this ongoing scandal -- since most Germans say, "This affair doesn't affect me" or "It's not my business."

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"I'm more interested in the U.S. reaction," a Munich native said when I did my rounds this afternoon. Yet there must be some curiosity since ARD, the top television station in Germany, has even rescheduled its prime-time lineup to broadcast a half-hour special on the story. Hmm, could someone be lying here?


Salon Staff

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