France Enthralled: Sarkozy Looks to the Obama Model

By Stefan Simons in Paris

Hating America had become en vogue in France during the eight long years of the Bush presidency. Now, the intelligentia is embracing Obama with almost misty-eyed optimism.

France was solidly behind Barack Obama.
REUTERS

France was solidly behind Barack Obama.

America, the superpower that the French love to hate, has suddenly, with the election of a black man to the country's highest political office, emerged once again as a societal model and exemplar of democracy. As many as 80 percent of the French electorate, according to a weekend survey from the Journal de Dimanche, say they would be ready to vote for a black. Still, a full half of respondents didn't think a black would have a chance of winning a French presidential election.

Nevertheless, "Obama-mania" à la française has swept all corners of the populace. "Obama is a model we can grasp" is the way Zachary James Miller, an Obama fan in Paris, explains the astonishing affection shown by the French, presenting Obama not just as a representative for minorities, but as a messenger of "hope for everyone."

Thus, in the suburbs his triumph is being understood as a spur for black and North African minorities to do the same as the US. In Courneuve, outside Paris, supporters of the new president gathered in T-shirts bearing Obama's portrait surrounded by star-spangled banners. Among intellectuals, the reflexive rejection of the politics of George W. Bush has given way to an almost misty-eyed optimism.

"This outcome is greater than the dream that Martin Luther King once dared to hope for," says Socialist Robert Badinter, connecting the result to the great 1963 speech of the civil rights activist. "Obama's election," says a prominent jurist, "is a true revolution."

All across the political spectrum, from right to left, the French are marvelling at American's new dawn. It's no surprise that President Nicolas Sarkozy -- derided by the opposition as "Sarko, the American" -- anticipated Obama's success, even as diplomatic advisers allegedly still counted on his opponent winning the Democratic primary: "I never believed Hillary Clinton would win," said Sarkozy before boldly declaring, "Obama is my buddy." After all, Sarkozy already met with Obama while on a trip to America during his own election campaign in 2006. After winning, he also greeted the US politician in the Élysée Palace during Obama's summer swing through Europe.

French communications strategists -- already peering toward the 2012 elections -- are not only studying Obama's perfect campaign and his "almost military organization" efforts, they're also underlining the way he harmonizes substance and political style. "A lot of things unite Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama," they say. The expectation is that these personal parallels will help to clear away the political baggage and controversies that have plagued the eight years of the Bush era.

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