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French Wonder About Obama Effect

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The Obama election isn’t just causing excitement in the U.S. French people living in Chicago say the results are being greeted with jubilation in their native country. And it’s raising the question of whether there could be a French Obama.

The ballroom at the Union League Club of Chicago downtown is packed, with people sipping wine and eating fine chocolates. A strolling accordion player squeezes out some popular French tunes.

It’s the annual ceremony to uncork the first bottles of Beaujolais nouveau. It’s hard to imagine a more French scene, outside France itself.

Bistro 110 Executive Chef Dominique Tougne doles out pureed sweet potato and lamb shank. He’s a dual citizen, and he’s getting lots of e-mails from friends in his home country excited about Obama’s win.

TOUGNE: As far as I can remember, this was probably even the first time in a long time that the entire French community was really involved indirectly in what was happening in the United States, that’s for sure.

He says the Bush administration wasn’t popular with the French people. He thinks foreign policy will change under Obama.

TOUGNE: The whole process in the Obama election, it shows a lot of interesting diplomacy, instead of trying to use directly the force or trying to use his own vision. He seems more open to have a round table to take decisions. I believe that goes more with the French approach of politics.

At the French-American Chamber of Commerce in Chicago, part of Genevieve Gandal’s job is encouraging French businesses to come here. Until Obama declared his candidacy, she used to have to go to the businesses.

GANDAL: That is now switched over to these companies coming towards me, looking to enter our marketplace, rather than me having to sell Chicago and sell the Midwest.

Obama’s Chicago connection is helping.

GANDAL: When I first started my job a couple of years ago, and I’d go to France, it was amazing to me to still hear that we were associated with Al Capone.

Now, Gandal says, people are equating Chicago with Obama and a shift toward intellectualism, which she says the French value.

An international banker, Joseph Chevalier, says there were Obama clubs in the town where his son lives in France.

CHEVALIER: I think it’s really a light at the end of the tunnel for many minorities all over the world. We all talk about the American dream and so on, but this is truly an incredible dream that somebody with this origin, and just because of his wits and so on, is able to make it to the top job in the world. That should give hope that anything is possible.

It’s got some people questioning whether there could be a French Obama.

GOUJON: When you talk to younger people in France, they see themselves more and more as European. And not so much as a typical French, with the beret, the baguette. (Laughs.) And so the image the French people have of themselves is changing, it’s changing rapidly.

Goujon heads the US branch of a European human resources firm called BPI. He’s French and Spanish. He thinks the changing sense of identity comes partly from inclusion in the European Union, as well as the mosaic of cultures and origins. He says the change is coming from the bottom up, from young people. They travel, and rely on the Internet and Facebook.

GOUJON: Although you are physically in a space called France, you really are part of a larger entity that is not France.

That diversity – and the resulting struggle for identity – is captured in a local art exhibit right here in Chicago. “Faces: A Question of Identity, The Changing Face of France,” is underway at an international gallery and policy salon called TH!NKART.

French artist Florent Moutti painted portraits of people of different races and ethnicities. What they have in common is they’re all French.

MOUTTI: French is not so, so, white anymore. It has more and more persons who came from different countries. And in everyday life, you can see people with different origins. But they are French, they were born in France, they were raised in France, so they have to be recognized as French.

Moutti chose the most traditional of French fabrics as his backdrop. You’ve seen toile de Jouy on drapes, wallpaper and even chairs in opulent homes. It often features a bucolic country scene, like a woman feeding chickens. Moutti paints his portraits on the fabric, so the pattern shows through.

GLENN: The toile de Jouy is a symbol of French nationalism. So to have these images juxtaposed on this canvas, is to really question the whole sense of French identity and what it means today.

Laurie Glenn is director of TH!NKART. Her gallery brought Moutti’s portraits over, as part of “The State of Race” conference to spur conversation about identity in France and here.

GLENN: They do not look French, not how we think of French, they are not Bridgette Bardot. But they are French nonetheless, they perceive themselves as French and ultimately, there is a huge, massive transformation being undergone in this culture right now. It is a war, it’s a cultural war actually, that is going on today.

That was evidenced in France just a few years ago. Young people began rioting in the suburbs of Paris, where there’s a heavy concentration of immigrants, and the unrest quickly spread to other parts of the country. They burned cars and buildings out of frustration with unemployment and alleged racism.

France has a much different history with race than the U.S., of course. It doesn’t have centuries of institutionalized racism. But France is still feeling the effects of having colonized parts of the world, and the Algerian War.

University of Chicago Law Professor Bernard Harcourt says France has millions of people with African heritage, but only a handful have seats in government.

HARCOURT: There’s no doubt that there’s going to be an Obama effect in France. I think there will be a Obama effect in America in the very similar way. I wish I could say that it was out of genuine humanitarian interest in a more diverse world. I think it’s a question of votes.

Harcourt wrote a blog covering the election for the French news weekly, “L’Express.” He predicts the major political parties will start seeking out African candidates, thanks to Obama’s victory.

I’m Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.

Accordion music played by Jerry King

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