I almost went swimming in the icy waters of a fountain at Place de la Concorde on Sunday.
There were near fisticuffs at our live position outside the French Interior Ministry, not to mention the tear gas we inhaled and the thrown paving stone near-miss at the Place de la Bastille. Then, our mishap was finished off with almost getting smothered by a crowd of overdressed French folks diving for some cheese canapés.
It was just another night covering French elections (hey, I often had it easier covering the Marines in Fallujah!) To give you some background of the scene:
As you probably already know by now, conservative politician Nicolas Sarkozy is president-elect of France. Having lived in Paris for eight years, I'm secretly (gotta stay fair and balanced) pleased. France is a wonderful place. It's just been historically ill-served by its politicians. The country is like a swanky but tattered sofa; every year it gets more and more out of shape. Pro-reform free marketer Sarkozy could be the man to give the couch a plumping.
Our focus from the start was on Sarkozy, or L'Americain, as he is derisively called by the anti-American French crowd. Early on, Sarkozy did one of the most dangerous things a French politician could do: admit that he likes America. On-air one day, I mentioned what a dangerous stance that is, and the main French TV network heard what I said and quoted me. Breaking news!
The only thing Jacques Chirac (or le bulldozer, as he's called) will be remembered for after the twelve years of a do-nothing presidency was trying to stand in the way of the U.S. going to war with Iraq. Think what you want now about the war, but obstructionism in the name of trying to woo le voter is no virtue!
Then there was his opponent, Segolene Royal (or the “socialist sexpot,” as Geraldo calls her). Much had been written about her attempt to become the first woman president of France, her inclusive humanist approach to politics, and mostly … the bikini she wore on her summer vacation last year.
Yes, she's a looker in the fine French tradition. I had a chance to get up close (but not too personal) with her at one of her last rallies and can attest to that fact. But even in France, beauty's only skin deep. After a while her pitch of giving everything to everybody and balancing the budget to boot didn't quite square with the usually easily seduced French voter.
Which brings us back to Sunday's election night.
We did our live shots from the Ministry of Interior for four reasons: it's where they tabulate the votes; it's across from the geographical goal of the evening, the French “White House,” called the Elysee Palace; it's a balanced choice rather than the headquarters of either of the candidates, and finally … it has the best food and wine bar of any election night venue.
The polls close in Paris at 8 p.m., but the media folks doing the projections base their estimates on polling places in France, which close earlier. Bizarrely, these estimates leak like a Sarkozy sieve. While the French government fines French media companies $100,000 if they report the results before the polls close, if you're foreign interlopers like us, you can get away with it.
So, thanks to our great sources (and a few off-the-radar Belgian and Swiss Web sites) we were able to break the news to America at 5:30 p.m. French time that Sarkozy had won.
Apparently other people knew too. There are reports that loser Royal called Sarkozy to congratulate him five minutes before the polls closed … and she gave her concession speech just five minutes after! President Bush called Sarko next, and then the French victor gave his acceptance speech. By 9 p.m., it was all over — none of those Florida cliffhangers for the efficient French.
That allowed the French people to spend the rest of the night enjoying themselves…or drowning their sorrows.
I think the Royal folks hit the bottle first. When I came out for one of my live shots, cameraman Barnaby was in shock.
“These guys are tough, Greg,” he complained. Apparently, some of the downtrodden Socialists had spotted us, and our FOX News affiliation, and decided that we were the foreign media sponsor for the winning pro-American conservative.
A fellow in Benjamin Franklin-style designer specs got in my face and began telling me in a high-pitched French rant a thing or two about how terrible Sarkozy was, how bad America was, and how he didn't care too much for me either. As I was about to go on the air for Jamie Colby's show, I was feeling very, shall we say, protective about my space. Luckily for all, he moved on.
Next, we set off for nearby Place de la Concorde and the Sarkozy victory party. Frankly, I didn't think the conservative folks would draw much of a youthful scene, but I was wrong. Attractive young French men and women danced in the fountains, splashing water and “bubbly” around. I told Barnaby to “Roll now!” Nothing like French wet T-shirts to boost their ratings.
My biggest shock of the night came when I asked how folks felt about Sarkozy liking America. One fellow said, “That's the main reason I voted for the guy. I'm sick and tired of people here saying bad things about the United States.”
After I recovered, we were off again with French producer Cicely, her compatriot and driver Monique, and cameraman Barnaby, in a Renault Clio headed for Place de la Bastille. That's the historic site of the Revolution in Paris, and so it was on election night too.
You see, in her infinite wisdom, Segolene Royal had predicted before the vote that if she lost to hard liner Sarkozy, there would be fighting in the streets.
As if on cue, she conceded defeat and voila: fighting in the streets. Extreme left activists upset by the Royal loss (those same people Sarkozy called “scum” in the past) were doing battle with police when we arrived. The air was filled with tear gas and hurled stones in bad post-60s fashion.
Our driver, Monique, was the first to drop away. Then we lost Cicely in a haze of eau de tear gas. Consummate war cameraman Barnaby barreled through to relative safety beyond the French police line. I checked to see if my lungs were still functioning, and then linked up with him to a stand-up for the next day's Brit Hume's show. It was French “street democracy,” on glorious display.
Unfortunately, it took us an hour to battle our way back to our live position. Though we made it in time for Trace Gallagher's FOX Report, we sadly missed out on the pate. By the time we got to the Interior Ministry's post-election spread, the Frenchie's were draining the dregs of champagne in their Chanel and Cacharel suits. After crawling under legs and pushing past Rolex-laden arms to get to the food area, all that was left were little round balls of goat cheese and caramel éclairs. Quel disappointment!
After our last live shot with Geraldo, it was back to the hotel for late night room service croque monsieurs. Our appetites weren't satisfied, but our journalistic needs were. And maybe, just maybe, the French had seen the lumiere and voted in a president who can get them back in the fast lane of the national Autoroute!
Greg Palkot serves as foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in London. Most recently, Palkot reported live from the crisis in the Middle East. You can read his complete bio here .
Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.