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Le Kennedy Noir

Paris sulks: Why Berlin and not us?

Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By ANNE-ELISABETH MOUTET
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Paris
However you slice it, the Obama whirlwind Paris tour (three hours on the ground), sandwiched between the candidate's rock-star speech to ecstatic crowds in Berlin's Tiergarten and dinner with Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street, left the French, well, rather miffed. It was the second question posed at the press conference Obama gave with President Sarkozy at the Elysée on Friday afternoon. "Is it," the Agence France-Presse reporter asked, noting that the candidate had chosen Berlin for his major speech, "because it's not so well considered to like France in America?"

Obama waffled elegantly, choosing to explain that he'd already been abroad for an unprecedented period, over a week, unheard of for a candidate. (There was more than a hint of weary duty at work here, as if he were already president with a life constrained by greater forces, instead of having calibrated the entire exercise, from Helmand Province to Whitehall, with a micron-accurate eye to the best transformative spin.) Later in the 40-minute conference, Obama obliquely acknowledged the point, crediting Sarkozy, with whom he'd been indulging in a somewhat self-conscious best-buddies lovefest throughout, with "having made it possible to call French fries 'French fries' again in America." "Americans love France," he protested.

Setting the tone, Sarko sparked guffaws with his less convincing opening statement that "the French love America." ("It would be worse if I didn't say it," he countered, which elicited more genuine laughter.)

Amid all the courteous hypocrisies, it was obvious each saw in the other a first-rate political animal. Sarkozy had been quick to recall he'd met Obama in Washington back in 2006, when he himself was a candidate for the presidency. "And during that visit, Mr. Sarkozy only met with two senators, myself and John McCain," Obama added. "So it's obvious he has a very good political nose."

"When I think of the two of us sitting in that [Senate] office that day," Sarko reminisced, "well, one has managed to get elected. It's the other's turn now, isn't it? I'm not saying this to meddle. France will do very well with whoever becomes president of the United States."

Obama, whom French pundits call le Kennedy noir, had traveled to the Middle East and Europe to acquire gravitas and foreign-affairs polish. Sarkozy made much of what the two men had in common.

"We are both the sons of immigrants, with foreign-sounding names, went into politics at a time when people like us weren't expected to get to the top, and we both beat women opponents in a presidential contest" he said, very much aware of the reflected glamour Obama-who by some polls is favored by 86 percent of the French-could shine on his own currently dismal numbers. (The first question at the press conference, from an articulate and pugnacious black American reporter, was to Sarkozy, asking how he felt standing next to someone who looked like the people he'd called "scum" when faced with riots as minister of the interior. Sarkozy replied that he was the first French president to appoint people very much like that to his cabinet, pointing out that during the 2005 French race riots, "nobody died, and the only injured were in the ranks of the police. Thank you for allowing me to make that point.")

Obama, you could tell, was the ultimate arm-candy for embattled European leaders, beating even Carla Bruni (Sarkozy's beautiful new wife, who remained absent from the short Paris proceedings) in sheer wattage. And the senator knew it. His staff, no doubt briefed on the not very dignified leadership free-for-all currently tearing apart the French Socialist party, had cagily refused to meet with any French opposition leaders. Adding insult to injury, Obama did agree to see Britain's David Cameron, the Conservative leader, telegraphing an undiplomatic but probably accurate assessment of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's political chances.

When challenged by the AFP reporter, Obama said apologetically he felt he'd been addressing not just Germany but all of Europe from Berlin. From anyone else, this could have been taken as the height of tactlessness, but Obama, facing a smaller but just as enthusiastic audience in the Elysée's Salle des Fêtes as he had near the Berlin Victory column, was given a free pass.

For in Paris, it's the media and the banlieues (the projects) that drive the Obamamania filling every front page, from Libération to Le Figaro. There were more people inside the Elysée, jostling for a seat in the press room or a good camera angle in front of the palace, than in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré outside. A crowd 300 strong, including a sizable number of tourists and more black faces than one usually sees in this exclusive part of town, started a chant of "Yes, We Can!" outside as the candidate's motorcade was leaving at full speed for the airport, followed by a busload of traveling correspondents. We, the Paris-based press, went to interview them under the blasé gaze of the police.

"Did you see him? Isn't he marvelous?" a cheerful secretary named Victoire, come specially from her office near the Opéra with a girlfriend, gushed. "We wouldn't see this in France." "That's why America is so formidable," said the friend, who like Victoire was born in northern Paris of Cameroonian parents.

I couldn't help contrasting their large smiles and enthusiastic tone with the silkily venomous and cultured voice of Hubert Védrine, the former Socialist foreign minister, heard this very morning on Radio Luxembourg. Védrine coined the expression "hyperpower" about America. He opposes it. It was, he explained, simply time for America to understand she couldn't go it alone, but had to behave responsibly among other nations and international institutions. Unfortunately, in his view, Barack Obama had started making worrisome statements, several steps back from his earlier multilateralist commitments.
"But you know," Védrine confided to his morning-show audience with Talleyrand-like sophistication, "that's just the way you have to win an election, isn't it? From a few things Mr. Obama has let escape, I think he still believes in the principles he had at the beginning. I am very hopeful."

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a political journalist in Paris and a frequent contributor to the BBC.