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By K.L John


Monday, August 11, 2008.


American Presidential hopeful Barack Obama was in Paris on his recent tour of the Middle East and Europe.  Despite the brevity of his time there, he enjoyed an extraordinarily warm welcome from the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. 


During their joint press conference, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour was one of many to raise their eyebrows in surprise when Sarko referred to Barack Obama as his ‘friend’. 


Now, on one level, it’s logical; the French and Americans have a very long history of friendship, largely based on them working together to antagonise the British (see the big ‘congratulations on your independence’ present the French handed the Americans; their prized Statue of Liberty).  But the hugely popular Barack and far less popular Sarkozy sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum; presidential ambitions aside, what could those two possibly have in common?


Getting beaten by a woman (nearly)


Similarity:  Unusually, both politicos came up against serious competition from a woman – and won.  Sarko’s rival for the French presidency was Ségolène Royal, of the more progressive Parti Socialiste, who, like Hilary, would have been the first woman head of state. 


Difference:  Sarko beat Royal for the presidency, whereas Obama fought Clinton for the Democratic nomination. 


Media attention


Similarity:  Both Sarko and Obama faced very close competition amid an unusual amount of media interest in the elections – possibly generated by the ‘new’ look of the candidates - and a public ready for a new generation of politicians.




Big difference:  One is considered the great hope for social justice, the other is the defender of the social status quo.  Sarko is the latter.  The candidate with a track record that got French folk registering en masse to vote for anybody else.  Obama, au contraire, represents youthful reinvigoration, promising ‘change we can believe in.’


Political Experience


Difference:  Sarkozy has been in politics for over 25 years.  As well as President of the Republic, among his titles are Council Leader, Mayor, Minister (various portfolios), and Jacques Chirac’s protégé.  Obama was elected to the US senate for the first time only four years ago; his rise within the Democratic ranks has been meteoric. 


Personal life


Difference:  Sarkozy and his second marriage’s issues garnered column miles in French dailies. Soon after the French presidency had been won, the pair split.  A few months later, Sarkozy controversially married wife number three, a model, who then released an album.  Obama is still on wife number one, and I don’t know them personally, but I just can’t see that changing anytime soon.    




Similarity:  Both model themselves on iconic politicians:  Nicolas Sarkozy is a huge fan of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, spin doctoring, media courting and all.  His presidential campaign focused on his desire to liberalise the French economy on the British model (this was pre-Northern Rock and credit crunch remember).  Barack Obama has been repeatedly compared to the late American President John F. Kennedy, widely considered a young, open-minded visionary whose presidency saw social change on a revolutionary scale.




Similarity:  Both Sarkozy and Obama are the children of immigrants.  Nicolas Sarkozy’s full name is Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarközy de Nagy-Bocsa.  His father was a Hungarian immigrant who fled the Red Army towards the end of World War 2, and his mother came from one of Greece’s oldest Jewish families.


Meanwhile, Barack Obama Snr also emigrated; he was a Kenyan who moved to America for university education. Like Barack is in Kenya, Sarko’s apparently loved by the Israelis and France is currently embroiled in a new racist cartoon debate central to which is Sarko’s son’s engagement to a Jewish woman. 


Biggest difference of them all: 


Nicolas Sarkozy’s policies are not indicative of an empathy with new immigrants into France.  He famously referred to rioting youths as ‘scums’ and promised to deport them, although the rioters were as French as he is.  Interestingly, Sarkozy considers his background proof that French society is very inclusive, but that to be French emotional connections to heritage should be subsumed by one’s Frenchness.


Barack Obama on the other hand, has simultaneously and openly embraced his ethnic heritage and Americanness.  This is undoubtedly easier in a nation proud of its immigrant status, but as an East African, it’s safe to assume that Obama’s dad was as unwelcome in the US, as Sarkozy’s maternal granddad was in Vichy France.  He is therefore touted as ‘the first black’ president, though if elected he would be the sixth president of colour, according to research by C. Stone Brown and Dr. Leroy Vaughn. 


Upon careful examination, and perhaps against the odds, Obama and Sarko clearly have a few things in common.  As long as Obama gets elected – but doesn’t intervene in French domestic policy - this trip could well prove to be the beginning of a fruitful friendship.


© 2008


KL John is our Francophone expert. She is a writer and campaigner curious about international politics, trade and justice. She can be reached at kes@thenewblackmagazine.com


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