Europeans have high hopes for Obama

Some see symbol of transformation

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 18, 2008 

— His visage appears between the svelte curves of fashion models on Europe's most prestigious runways. His speeches are remixed into thumping music tracks in underground dance clubs. His campaign slogans are the foundation for modern art hanging on trendy Parisian gallery walls.

In Europe, Barack Obama is much more than the Democratic presidential nominee. He's the hip new thing.

More than any other American politician since John F. Kennedy, Obama not only has captivated Europe, he's also become a cultural icon.

"Barack Obama represents our hidden consciousness, our hidden dreams," said Helene Faussart, who's half of Les Nubians, the Grammy-nominated Parisian Afro-beat duo. "He really represents the America we imagine it to be."

Even before 200,000 supporters converged on Berlin's Brandenburg Gate in July to hear Obama, it was obvious that he'd struck a chord in Europe.

Obama represents something more than just a possible change in direction for the United States after eight years of often-divisive Bush administration policy. He has come to symbolize the hopes of young, disenfranchised Europeans, who see him as a transforming figure for their continent, as well, said Oliver Richomme, a French professor of American history and the co-author of "Barack Obama's America."

"He seems to be a candidate of the 21st century," Richomme said.

Nowhere is that sense of transformation more palpable than in Paris, which has been jarred by two rounds of rioting in the past three years that forced the country to confront its inability to integrate growing numbers of disenfranchised immigrants, including large numbers of Muslims from France's former North African colonies.

More than 6,000 supporters have joined an Obama political support group. DJs have mixed his best-known speeches into house music tunes. Parisian women tote designer purses with his face on them.

Earlier this month at the Paris Fashion Week, at least four top European designers unveiled dresses, skirts and tops featuring images honoring Obama.

One Parisian art gallery recently tore up its schedule and asked dozens of artists to produce pieces for a special "Obama in Paris" exhibition that has already become one of its most popular shows.

"It's Obama mania," said Catherine Meyer, one of the artists who contributed to the exhibition. "It's very fashionable."

What strikes Obama's Parisian supporters is the contradiction in France: Polls find that as many as 80 percent of its citizens support Obama, yet the country last year rejected the left-leaning Segolene Royal, who was poised to become France's first female president, and elected the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

France, Obama supporters here say, is a long way from electing a transformative president.

While there's a wide array of African-American politicians in the United States, from conservative Alan Keyes and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the firebrand Rev. Al Sharpton, few black politicians in France have made such breakthroughs.

"If Obama is elected president, maybe it will change things in France," said Michele Salaun, another artist who created work for the Obama exhibition in Paris. "Maybe an Arab or a woman would be able to become president in France."

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