By Sarah Galer
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

[The blog] comes to us from the United States and is being done by a former faculty colleague of Obama, having become both a specialist in law and criminology.”
—Eric Mettout
Editor-in-Chief of L’Express.fr

The French avidly watched the U.S. presidential election last year along with the rest of the world, leaving many hungry for an American perspective of the process.

Enter Bernard Harcourt, the Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science. Raised in the United States by French parents, he focuses on legal and political theory, and was a colleague of Barack Obama’s at the University of Chicago.

His French background and his Chicago connection—both to the city and the University—made Harcourt a perfect candidate to bring the Obama administration alive for the French, particularly since they are strong Obama supporters (polling 64 percent for Obama during the election).

At the request of L’Express, the French equivalent to Time magazine, Harcourt started a blog, “Politique USA: Chronique d’actualité, en direct de Chicago.” Since September 2008, he has discussed the presidential campaign, answered live questions the day after the election, and is currently debating Obama’s first 100 days in office.

Harcourt has enjoyed the interaction. He characterizes the French as a sophisticated reading public who is well-informed on U.S. politics and interested in discussing specific policy interventions—from the workings of Wall Street to remodeling U.S. relations with the Middle East.

“It forces me to have greater perspective and to resist giving advice, which is always so tempting on these commentary sites. Since my readers are engaged in a very different set of debates across the Atlantic, I can have more of a critical voice and comment on the larger historical dimensions,” Harcourt says of his blog. “It’s tough because there are times when I would like to address our domestic audience and engage in our debates, but it keeps me at a greater distance, which I think is ultimately very useful.”

Seeing It From Both Sides

It is not a coincidence that Harcourt has become a voice on U.S. politics in France. “Both my parents were French and brought me up straddling the two sides of the Atlantic,” he says.

He spent last year in Paris as a Fulbright Research Scholar, with a home base at the University’s Center in Paris. The idea for the blog came while he was teaching at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and Paris X.

L’Express asked me to comment on some of the more intricate issues of the campaign—on implicit bias, the Bradley Effect and ‘the Palin Effect’—and pretty soon I was blogging on their website and writing for Éditions Le Manuscrit.”

Éditions Le Manuscrit is simultaneously publishing his political commentary as an electronic book and in folio, resulting in two books: Journal de campagne and Les 100 jours.

Eric Mettout, Editor-in-Chief of L’Express.fr, the website that hosts Harcourt’s blog, enthusiastically introduced Harcourt to his readers last fall, praising both his credentials and his charm.

“[The blog] comes to us from the United States and is being done by a former faculty colleague of Obama, having become both a specialist in law and criminology. His name is Bernard Hamburger Harcourt (what I wouldn’t give to be called Bernard Hamburger Harcourt!), a downright handsome kid, who writes in a French full of charming slips and who is going to make the ongoing American presidential campaign come alive for us.”

“En direct de Chicago”

Harcourt’s Law School work focuses on issues of order and disorder, deviance, and social control. Much of his scholarship currently deals with punishment.

“My research right now focuses on this neoliberal moment and the paradox of punishment—why is it that, for the past several decades, we have resisted intervening in the economic sphere, but so willingly expanded our penal sphere, in some cases exponentially? How is it that we justify putting 1 percent of the population behind bars, but have been so unwilling to regulate banks?”

Harcourt is working on a book on the topic called NeoLiberal Penality and recently won the Gordon J. Laing Prize for his last book, Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing and Punishing in the Actuarial Age.

Harcourt’s expertise in law and political science, as well as his French roots, gives his blog an authoritative voice, but his credibility also comes from his connection to the University and to Chicago, which are both in his blood.

“It’s actually quite a coincidence, but my father came to the States as a refugee from France in 1940 and ended up at the University of Chicago as a student—both at the College and at the Law School. He lived at Burton-Judson right next to my office … a small world.”

Originally published on April 13, 2009.