Excitement in France over Obama victory
by Katrin Bennhold, published June 6, 2008.
According to Samuel Solvit, president of France's support committee for Barack Obama, the French have not been this excited about America since they shipped over the Statue of Liberty in 1885.
Obamania has gripped most of Europe. But the enthusiasm is particularly striking in France. This is where the disenchantment with U.S. foreign policy under the Bush administration has been the most vocal. And this is where the Continent's largest community of African immigrants and their descendants live.
From the philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy to disenfranchised teenagers in volatile suburbs, Barack Obama - the 46-year-old Democratic senator from Illinois who is about to become the first black presidential nominee of a major U.S. party - has struck a nerve.
"He inspires different people for different reasons, but he inspires most people," said Solvit, whose 2,000-person-strong committee is the biggest in Europe and includes prominent members like Axel Poniatowski, president of the foreign affairs commission at the National Assembly, and Mayor Bertrand Delanoë of Paris.
"For the French establishment, Obama represents a new chapter in the Western alliance," Solvit said. "For ethnic minorities he embodies the equality of opportunity they crave."
Europe always watches when America goes to the polls. But this year a collective craving for change appears to have heightened the interest.
Europeans know that whoever is elected to the White House - Obama or his Republican rival, Senator John McCain - could profoundly affect their lives, from ripples in the world economy to the number of troops in Afghanistan.
Several opinion polls have suggested that if Europeans could vote on Nov. 4, they would cast their ballot for Obama, who is admiringly described as a cross between John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
Indeed, as the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung warned Friday, European enthusiasts have elevated the senator to a role he will find hard to fulfill - "a savior of mankind, a sort of political Messiah of the early 21st century."
But this week such caution tended to be drowned out by the news about Obama's impending nomination.
"You can't welcome it enough, especially in this era of rampant anti-Americanism," Le Figaro, the French daily, said Thursday.
"With Obama, a certain idea of America is back: that of a generous society where equality of opportunity is not an empty promise. Hope and change, key words of his campaign, reinforce this rediscovered ideal, which resonates as much inside the country as beyond."
In no other segment of France's population does this ideal inspire more than among minorities. One in 10 of the nation's inhabitants is of Arab or African origin.
Kama Des-Gachons, a 28-year-old Frenchwoman, was one of about 600 young men and women flocking to a panel discussion in Paris on Tuesday about the "Obama Effect in France." Her eyes lit up when she spoke about Obama. Not because he is a Democrat or because he opposed to the war in Iraq. But because his father was an African immigrant, like hers.
"He makes me dream," said Des-Gachons, whose parents came to France from Mali. "I even bought a T-shirt with the American flag. America is the country where you can make it."
Des-Gachons is living the American election campaign vicariously, as if she had a vote herself. Could she imagine a French Obama?
"Not anytime soon," she said. Despite a university degree from the Sorbonne, it took her two years to find her current job in finance.
"But who knows?" she added, echoing a hope that many in the audience expressed. "If Obama is elected, maybe it will change perceptions in France, too."
President Nicolas Sarkozy awarded several high-profile jobs in his administration to people of African origin. Justice Minister Rachida Dati is the daughter of North African immigrants, as is Fadela Amara, in charge of France's suburbs. Rama Yade, junior minister for human rights, was born in Senegal.
But none of the 577 members of the National Assembly are from France's first- or second-generation immigrant population. Sarkozy has also quietly abandoned a campaign pledge to introduce affirmative action for ethnic minorities.
According to Constance Borde, vice president of Democrats Abroad in France and one of the party's superdelegates, French minorities need the kind of affirmative action their American counterparts have had.
"If you open up your education system," Borde told the packed auditorium at the Institut d'Études Politiques on Tuesday, "you, too, can have an Obama."
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