There was no rock star welcome for US presidential candidate Barack Obama during his visit to Paris on Friday, July 25 but French President Nicolas Sarkozy made sure the Illinois senator didn't feel unloved.
Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy make a dashing couple at the Elysee Palace
The Illinois senator touched down in his plane, bearing the slogan "Change we can believe in," at Le Bourget Airport north of Paris at about 3.30 pm local time, but Obama remained aboard the aircraft another 45 minutes.
The Democrat party candidate then headed into Paris to be greeted on the steps of the Elysee palace by a smiling Sarkozy.
"Bonjour," said Obama, after he was urged by journalists to say something in French and to pose for more handshakes with the French rightwing leader.
"The French love the Americans," Sarkozy said, smiling affectionately at the senator as the two walked into a press conference following their private meeting . He showered praise upon Obama, adding: "The French have been following him with passion."
Sarkozy said he would work with whomever becomes the next American leader, adding: "Of course it’s not up to the French to choose the next president of the United States of America." But he said that "Barack Obama's adventure is an adventure that rings true in the hearts and minds" of the French people.
“Americans will choose their presidents you know, not I,” Sarkozy said, demurring with a smile. “Good luck to Barack Obama, if he is chosen, then France will be delighted. If it is someone else, France will be the friend of the United States of America.”
"The America the France loves is an America that’s far-sighted, that has ambitions, great debates, strong personalities," Sarkozy told Obama. "We need an America that is present, not absent. You have to know that here in France, we’re acting with great interest what you’re doing."
The mutual adoration continued at the joint press conference held after short talks with Sarkozy.
Obama said Americans had an "enormous fondness" for the French, despite recent estrangements, and praised President Sarkozy for shattering stereotypes about his country.
He effusively praised the French leader despite perceptions that an affinity for France can damage US presidential candidates.
Obama praises Sarkozy for his approach to the US
Obama showed his gratitude for Sarkozy's attitude to the US
"He has been a great leader on this, and the American people greatly appreciate President Sarkozy's approach to the relationship," Obama said, on the penultimate day of his Europe and Middle East campaign tour.
"I think for too long, there has been a caricature on both sides of the Atlantic," Obama said. "The Europeans, I think, have seen Americans just as unilateral and militaristic and have tended to forget the extraordinary sacrifices that US military but also US taxpayers have made in helping to rebuild Europe."
Obama chided his countrymen for thinking that Europeans don't want to get their "hands dirty" in global conflicts.
"One of the wonderful things with President Sarkozy's presidency has been that he's broken -- he shattered -- many of those stereotypes.
"I think the average American has enormous fondness for the French people," said Obama, despite recent rows, especially over the French opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Obama also said he had not meant to snub France, by spending only a few hours in the country Friday during his whistle-stop tour.
"I don't know anybody who doesn't want to spend more time in Paris," he said. "It really just had to do with the fact the way our schedule has been structured; I've been gone for a very long time. It's unusual for a presidential candidate to be out of the country for more than a week."
Obama also refered to Iran, saying Tehran should not wait for the next US president to be elected to accept the offer from the six world powers currently negotiating with the Islamic Republic over its disputed nuclear program.
"Iran should accept the proposals that President Sarkozy and the EU 3 plus 3 are presenting now. Don't wait for the next president because the pressure, I think, is only going to build," he said.
He also said that the United States needed to send two additional brigades at least to Afghanistan and urged a greater commitment from NATO allies. He said it was "a war we have to win."
Obama's star rising
Obama received a rock star welcome from 200,000 cheering fans for a speech he made Thursday in Berlin calling for the world to tear down walls of division and hate.
But he was to make no public appearances in Paris, apart from the press conference with Sarkozy at the Elysee, where hundreds of fans waited in the street outside to get a glimpse of the Illinois senator.
French fans were more restrained than the Germans
Obama has received 84 per cent approval ratings in France, the highest in Europe while Sarkozy himself is trusted by fewer than 40 per cent of his compatriots.
By comparison, Obama's putative Republican opponent for the US presidency was trusted by only 33 per cent of French respondents.
Obama's popularity in France is striking in a country where minorities have made little progress toward equality.
For example, in last year's French general elections, only one minority lawmaker was elected from the mainland to the 577-seat National Assembly; 15 others won seats from France's overseas territories, where the majority of the population is black.
In addition, there are no minority senators, and only a small handful of the more than 36,000 city halls throughout the country are occupied by black or Maghreb mayors.
Although French law makes it illegal to collect data according to race, it is estimated that 10 to 14 per cent of France's population of 62 million is of North African or sub-Saharan African descent.
The head of the French civil rights organization CRAN, Patrick Lozes, told the DPA news agency that he hoped Obama's visit would shake things up in France's racial relations.
Lozes said that the visit would have an effect on French public opinion, "which will have to ask itself, If it is happening in the United States, why is it impossible here?"
Obama's presence in France will also serve as a "wake-up call for French leaders, who will be forced to wonder where the Barack Obamas of France are," Lozes said.
Barack walks a tightrope on French-US relations
Obama was careful not to grandstand too much in Paris due to some attitudes in the US
Back in the United States, there are few votes for any US presidential candidate in being seen to be close to France. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, was pilloried by some conservatives just because he could speak French.
Obama "cannot requite the love that France has for him," said Francois Durpaire, the co-author of a book on the senator from Chicago, because "that would go down badly in the Midwest" states of America.
But his visit has sparked much excitement in France, with Le Monde newspaper's front-page headline stating: "Europe is under the charm of Barack Obama."
Sarkozy's election a year ago greatly improved US-French relations, which were poisoned by France's staunch opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq under then president Jacques Chirac.
Sarkozy told Friday's edition of Le Figaro newspaper that 46-year-old Obama, whom he met once in 2006 in Washington along with his 71-year-old Republican rival John McCain, was a "friend."
"Obama? That's my buddy," Sarkozy said in the interview. "Contrary to my diplomatic advisors, I never thought Hillary Clinton had a chance. I always said Obama would be chosen" as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party."
"I am the only French person who knows him," Sarkozy said, recounting that he had met Obama during a visit to the United States in 2006, when he was Interior Minister.
Obama's national security spokeswoman Wendy Morigi said: "President Sarkozy has made the bilateral Franco-American relationship and the transatlantic alliance a centerpiece of his presidency, and Senator Obama looks forward to discussing how to build on these important initiatives."
Presidential candidate planning to re-embrace Europe
Obama's tour was designed to shore up European support
Repairing relations between the United States and Europe -- strained over the Iraq war -- was a theme of Obama's Berlin speech, where he said that "the walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand."
"The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down," he said, echoing former US president Ronald Reagan's 1987 call to tear down the Berlin Wall.
Obama was due to meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, opposition Conservative leader David Cameron and former premier Tony Blair in London on Saturday, before flying back to the United States.