26 July 2008

Obama à l'Elysée

Friday marked the closest I would get to The Man Himself during the course of the campaign as he made an abbreviated visit to the Elysée Palace to have a short meeting with President Sarkozy followed by a press conference.

Given his popularity here, from all levels of the French population up to Sarkozy himself who, in the days leading up to his visit, remarked, "Obama? He's my buddy!" There was no public interaction scheduled but I felt that it would be worthwhile to go to the presidential residence just to see what could be seen. Clearly I wasn't the only one to be motivated as such:

I would estimate the crowd at several hundred, though separated at different street corners.

It was an incredible mix of people, perhaps 30% American and 70% French all from a variety of origins. I talked to a guy from Gabon for a while. His take was that Obama represented the rêve américain which remains an extremely powerful concept here, especially among immigrants and minorities.

There was a general mood of uncertainty and anticipation. No one, not even the journalists working the crowd, knew much about the itinerary or whether Obama would interact with the public at all. About ten minutes after I arrived, three large buses glided into place and dropped off journalists and campaign staff. I'm pretty sure that I saw Reggie Love, Obama's "body man" and, perhaps, the guy with the coolest name in the history of political aides. A few minutes later, what looked to be a diplomatic procession arrived and a black Cadillac with deep tinted windows slid into the gates of the palace.

I decided to wait until the end, just to see if there would be anything else. During that time more and more people arrived and the scene became more and more animated. The guy from Gabon harassed the police officers block the street a bit and an AFP photographer took in the scene.

At one point, about an hour and a half after the Cadillac entered the palace people started chanting "Obama! Yes we can!" Remembering that I live in the twenty-first century, I took a video with my camera phone. Watch out, it's a bit loud:

Two hours after the anti-climactic entrance, there was an efficient and anonymous exit. The police started their motorcycles, the Crown Victoria with GPS receivers got in position. The crowd got excited and the security personnel got anxious.

The gates to the palace opened, the dark Cadillac rolled out, turned towards the east and, like a hive mind creature, all of the vehicles accelerated away in one large pack; French motorcycle police, French security, black Crown Victoria, black Cadillac, Explorer with Secret Service hanging out, French security, and a few more motorcycles. Here's the best view I got, Obama was on the other side:

I was on my feet in the sun for the better part of three hours, crammed in with a bunch of other spectators trying to steal a sighting of one politician. It seems like it shouldn't be worth it but, in the end, I'm happy to have gone if only for the community aspect of it. Once again, paraphrasing the Gabonese man next to me, a lot of Obama's strength comes not from shockingly new positions, but from his style and his symbolism. It's a style and symbolism that has the power to bring people out of their houses, into the streets and to believe in a better future. As far as a national leader goes, that is an extremely powerful ability. To criticize Obama because he speaks well and draws huge crowds is missing the opportunity that such a capacity presents. In short, these three hours were my "Yes we can" moment and it felt damn good to be there.

Full Photo Album:

Obama at Elyesee

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