Obama Becomes President, Steals Sarkozy’s Limelight

Yes We Can! Barack Hussein Obama is now 44th president of the United States!

Time to assess reactions to that historical event from over on this side of the Atlantic. I’m tempted just to see what the Netherlands press has to say, particularly because of the great cover on today’s editions of the local quality free paper, De Pers: The black Jesus has landed! (Careful with that link: it will download for you the PDF of the entire issue.) “And now Barack Obama, since yesterday the new boss of the world, must really get to work,” the headline continues. “He is being looked to for carrying out wonders for every Tom, Dick, and Harry.”

I like that sort of irreverent, tongue-in-cheek attitude (at least I think that’s what the De Pers editors intended there), but let’s briefly survey instead coverage from the French press, to which it seems I traditionally turn first in the wake of some significant global event.

For one thing, the occasion of Obama’s inauguration seems to have inspired a bunch of graphic features that are fairly user-friendly even to the non-French-speaking. For instance, you can check out here, thanks to Libération, the president’s new armored limousine. (Yes, it’s true that each of those flashing orange dots is there to reveal further scintillating detail about the vehicle only in French, but you should be able to understand the fundamental spec numbers there on the page, inside that red box, fairly easily.)

Or here is an on-line video from Le Point: “SEE – The sensual dance of Barack and Michelle Obama at the beginning of the ball.” The text then continues (just above the video itself):

After taking the oath of the 44th American president [sic], Barack Obama, white tie and black tuxedo, and his spouse, dressed in a long dress signed by the young New York designer Jason Wu, leaving one shoulder completely bare, opened on Tuesday evening the “Neighborhood Ball,” the first of ten “official” inauguration balls in which the presidential couple were to participate.

Entwined, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama danced to the song “At Last,” a slow number interpreted by the R’n’B star Beyonce Knowles, on a scene decorated with an immense American flag.

Oh, and perhaps once last dig at the departed 43rd president is in order here as well: L’Express offers The best of the worst of Bush, a “small review of the unusual moments of ‘W’ at the White House.” For example, you’ll see again here Dubya doing his best at African dance, but the one I particularly like is the panicky scene of him at the wheel of a vintage Russian car, with Vladimir Putin intervening from beside him.

Between Jealousy and Fascination

We’ll have to forgive the French their self-absorption, but it remains true that among the most interesting subjects of the coverage there of Obama’s inauguration is the sort of interplay that can be expected between him and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. The consensus seems to be that Obama will do much to dull what has recently been Sarkozy’s bright public profile world-wide.

You really have to concede the label “consensus” when you find such a viewpoint espoused in print not only in the rather left-wing Libération (Nicolas Sarkozy, the drama of jealousy), which is definitely not a paper boasting many admirers of the French president, but also by Alain Barluet in the Sarkozy-organ Le Figaro (For Sarkozy, an American “buddy” who will be a rival). That this is an issue at all can be attributed directly to George W. Bush: both articles speak plainly of an American vide (“emptiness,” or “absence”) in the world dating back at least to the Georgian crisis of early August, and then of course lasting onward through the various economic and financial collapses of the autumn – remember Bush’s lame-duck hosting of that G20 summit in mid-November? – to the latest Gaza crisis. This Bush administration policy vacuum, together with France’s presidency of the EU in the second half of last year, provided Sarkozy with the opportunity to jump onto the world stage and gain quite a lot of attention, despite still being, as the Libération writer Antoine Guiral reminds us, “at the head of a mid-range economic and military power.”

Now there’s a new top dog in town, and Sarkozy will have to give way. That’s the conclusion both writers cannot help but avoid, although naturally Le Figaro soft-peddles the message considerably. There, Sarkozy is nonetheless Obama’s copain – which really translates as “buddy,” or “close friend” – and also the one who was predicting “This guy will go far” as early as the two men’s first meeting (of two total so far) back in September of 2006, when Obama was just a US Senator and Sarkozy was just the French Interior Minister. Still, Barluet has to concede at the very end of his piece that Sarkozy realizes full well that “for his new partner, occupied first of all by domestic questions, he will not be a priority.”

For his part, Libération’s Guiral twists this knife a bit more cruelly. (No one ever said that French internal politics was not a contact sport.) In his account, Sarkozy has been trying strenously already to score the first face-to-face meeting with Obama from a European leader, but with little prospect for any success in doing so before the American president is scheduled to attend the next G20 summit in London (and thereby, essentially, meet everyone) on April 2. So Sarkozy is being left, in Guiral’s account, on the sidelines of the American’s attention to “oscillate between fascination and jealousy.” After all, he was known himself as a fairly early-achiever, defying an outsider’s background to become French president at age 52, but now the 47-year-old Obama has outclassed him. What’s more, as Guiral viciously continues, “[i]n the world Obama raises hopes while Sarkozy prompts above all curiosity through his wife Carla, his bad manners, and his energy-to-spare.”

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