04 April 2009

Obama le Bien-aimé

From one extreme...

Popular response to President Obama’s visit to Strasbourg has been a study in extreme effusion, mostly the good kind. Our French television and newspapers churned out images of adoring crowds, cheering supporters, rock-star welcomes. Seriously, I knew the guy was popular over here, but this is breathtaking.

His biggest fan, it’s safe to say, is his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy. Since the era of Charles de Gaulle, French presidents have been quite open about seeking a more important international role and more power for France; Sarkozy has barely concealed that he wants these things for himself, personally. Obama has fulfilled that desire, granted that wish, and Sarko is ecstatic, by far the happiest man in Europe today.

... to another

Much of this has to do quite simply with Obama’s popularity: if he’d done nothing more than stand next to Sarkozy at a photo op, it would have helped. Obama is popular here in much the way that the Queen of England is popular in America, or Fidel Castro is popular in other countries: if you're not actually governed by somebody, it’s very easy to concentrate on pageantry or personality at the expense of more practical considerations. Obama is President McDreamy, and who knows or cares whether he’s any good at his job? Does it matter whether Patrick Dempsey is a good doctor, when we see him only on TV? Is he any less dreamy?

But Obama placed a certain responsibility on Sarkozy's shoulders. He needed a sherpa to lead him through the European landscape, and he picked the Frenchman. Not the Briton, not the Italian. (Much to Silvio Berlusconi’s visible frustration.) By Sarkozy’s reasoning, Obama's favor makes him de facto the most powerful leader in Europe; it’s the extension of the presidency of the European Union that he sought (and was denied) in December, and any boost in his own popularity must be cause for him to dance a mini-sardane around the Elysée Palace. Sarkozy is far more pro-American than most of his predecessors, yet his outpourings of gratitude and affection for Obama during press conferences make one question whether he knows what country this attractive fellow comes from.

It seems that plenty of Europeans know, and that Obama’s presidency hasn’t changed their antipathy toward U.S. policy. That’s why parts of Strasbourg went up in smoke today. Everyone, from government officials to protest organizers to news outlets, has stressed that several nations and a variety of different philosophies are represented by the protesters this weekend, and the pacifists have gone to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the violent, destructive types. It’s not clear that will do them any good, even when they get home to mom and dad. (“Honest, it wasn't me!”)

The news gave us a couple of reminders of the ramifications of closer association with the U.S., as Obama exhorted Europeans for more active participation in Afghanistan, and as a fellow in Binghamton, NY, went on a shooting rampage. (The latter story immediately followed reports on Obama’s visit on every newscast this weekend.) A disinterested French person might be forgiven for believing that America is all about the guns, still, and Obama seems unlikely to change that. Though Americans may see nothing wrong, and much good, with that status quo, the French will have other opinions.

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