World Europe First Look

Obama for president – of France?

A grassroots campaign is seeking a million signatures to draft the former US president to run for president of France.

French President Francois Hollande (l.) answers a question with former President Barack Obama at the G-8 Summit at Camp David, Md., in May 2012. A new grassroots campaign is collecting one million signatures to convince Obama to run for president in France.
Susan Walsh/AP Photo/File
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Apparently American Democrats are not the only ones missing Barack Obama. Some citizens of France have launched a new grassroots campaign called "Obama17" that is seeking 1 million signatures in the next three weeks, to convince the former US President to run for president in France.

Amid a presidential election marked by scandals and surprises, the organizers hope the campaign, though not serious, could be a voice for the people calling for change – just as many other campaigns have done before.

“It's definitely a joke," one of the co-creators of the website told NPR on Thursday, preferring not to use his name to avoid legal consequences. “But it could make people think a little bit about what we could do differently in French politics.… The idea was to make people wake up."

The campaign, with posters plastered around Paris, has a slogan of “Oui on peut” – the French translation of Mr. Obama’s famous 2008 presidential campaign slogan “Yes we can” – has already garnered some 35,000 signatures, according to their Facebook page. At least two other petitions with similar goals were also started last year, though not as successful as the current one.

For the creators of the website, this push for Obama’s leadership reflects a desire for another choice, even an impossible one, driven by their frustration with the current political climate in France.  

"We were thinking about French politics and saying that we were fed up with the fact that we all the time had to vote against someone, and how it would be cool to be able to vote for someone we admire,” he told NPR. “We came up with Obama."

While Obama has no real chance of winning the May election – among other obstacles, he is not a French citizen and does not speak French – he is very popular in France. A global attitude survey in June from the Pew Research Center found that 84 percent of the French had confidence that Obama would "do the right thing regarding world affairs," while 9 percent expressed similar confidence in then-candidate Donald Trump and 71 percent in Hillary Clinton.

But Obama’s appeal goes deeper. His election as the first African-American president “had a galvanizing effect in Europe, particularly among French minorities,” reported The Christian Science Monitor’s Robert Marquand in 2009. “The Obama effect” encouraged many French citizens of color to run for office, challenging a status quo that had only 7 minority members of either the Assembly or Senate, which together have 860 seats.

The creators of the Obama17 may have been inspired by the US tradition of protest candidates who, without any hope of winning, nonetheless launched their campaigns to make some political points. For instance, bowing to pressure from fans, comedian Stephen Colbert declared his brief candidacy for "President of South Carolina" in October 2007.

"The French are ready to make a radical choice," says the Obama17 website. "That's good, because we have a radical idea to propose."

After listing his qualifications, including "the best resumé in the world," they conclude their pitch by saying, "At a time when France is about to vote massively for the far right, we can give the planet a lesson in democracy by electing a foreigner as French president."

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