Obama's Paris Visit Captivates French Minorities

Barack Obama's very brief stop in Paris on Friday was smiles and gushing compliments all around. Flying in from Berlin this afternoon and out to London this evening, the candidate's Paris layover was exclusively to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy—a brevity that was disappointing to French fans gripped by "Obamania" (now a word in French, too). But short as it was, Obama's presence was nonetheless an exciting interlude for those who turned out to see him. "Barack Obama's adventure is an adventure that speaks to French people," declared Sarkozy.

Under a suitably symbolic glass ceiling in the Elysée Palace reception hall, Sarkozy and Obama spoke of their personal parallels as the successful children of immigrants. "Not everyone here [in France] is called Sarkozy. And not everyone in America is called Obama," Sarkozy—whose father was Hungarian—reminded 200 journalists at a press conference after their hourlong meeting. Obama, meanwhile, spoke of the "American dream" and, with regard to Sarkozy's election, "To see that same spirit in France is a powerful thing."

But on the street in front of the Elysée Palace, the small crowd of local black Obama supporters were less sure about the French version of equal opportunities. Chanting "Yes, We Can!"—the candidate's campaign slogan—they signalled that Obama is also an inspiration to minorities in France, as well as their hope that his political success can spark a measure of racial soul-searching in their own country.

"Obama makes us dream," says Patrice Schoendorff. He rattles off his own parallels with Obama—he's 46, too, the French-born son of a white mother and a black African father from Cameroon. A psychiatrist and forensic specialist at the University of Lyons's Faculty of Medicine, he boasts "a lot of diplomas." "In France, they'll give you the diploma, not necessarily the job that goes with it," says Schoendorff. "I could never be candidate for president in France. Impossible. Even running for local office is very complicated [as a black person] ... To be successful as a black person, you have to be a model or a singer or a soccer player, not a surgeon."

But Schoendorff is a president of sorts—of the Lyons support committee for Obama, which was the first of its kind, he claims, as others pop up in France. Based in the city's troubled banlieue neighborhoods, the Lyonnais Friends of Barack Obama now has 2,000 members. It's planning an "American Night" on Nov. 4, after a field trip to the United States in October. Schoendorff calls Obama's rise at once "a very nice example" for visible minorities and "a slap for France" as his country is caught lagging. He sees it in Cameroon. "There is an 'American dream,' but there is no longer a 'French dream.' Young people want to go to America, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia."

Uncomfortable with attitudes in the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Schoendorff says that Obama has made him "feel like going to the United States again. I have a sense that, if things don't change here, I'll leave … It's the psychiatrist in me talking now, but I think it's important for a man to project himself into the future. But there's this blockage [in France]."

Jean-Pierre Sturn, on the sidewalk opposite Elysée Palace, strikes a similar tone. "A black American is seen as an American, whereas a black French person isn't necessarily seen as French by his countrymen," he argues. Wearing an Obama '08 T shirt he bought on the Internet, he was there hoping for a glimpse of the senator from Illinois. He would have contributed to Obama's campaign, too, had he not learned that financing rules prohibit foreigners from making donations. Sturn, who is black and runs his own production company, now lives a few blocks from the presidential palace, but is originally from the French Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe. He's so taken with Obama's rise that he's planning a trip to the United States on Nov. 4. "Forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King! There's something divine in this, if he wins," says Sturn. "If Obama wins, Times Square will be madness. I would like to live that historic moment."

Sturn never did see his favorite candidate today. But for now, on a sweltering Paris afternoon spent cheering on a sidewalk, his message is simpler than "Yes, We Can." "I say, 'Chapeau'." For non-French speakers, that's a "hats off."