They were the hottest tickets in town. Bertrand Delanoe, Mayor of Paris, had invited about 1700 American expats to view the “retransmission of the ceremony of investiture” of the 44th President of the United States, “Son Excellence Monsieur Barack Obama,” in the ornate Hotel de Ville (City Hall).
In the spirit of fairness, Delanoe had arranged for the invitations to be distributed equally between liberals and conservatives. The liberal tickets were gone in a heartbeat, but there were only a few conservatives on hand. The gentleman who was given charge of the conservative tickets had, earlier in the week, come under fire when their existence became known to a few frustrated Democrats, and he refused to hand over the precious invitations. A man of principle.
There was a line on the street which doubled back on itself leading up to a side entrance. As soon as one came through the rather casual security checkpoint, the red carpet began, leading one into the entrance of this grand monument to French architecture which sits in distinguished fashion on the banks of the River Seine. Impressive paintings line the walls and majestic statues stand in hallways and along the wide center-staircase. In the main reception rooms, chandeliers, glistening like diamonds, were hung from lavishly embellished ceilings.
Large screens had been set up in several rooms. By 5 p.m. Paris time, CNN’s coverage was well underway, and the crowd’s excitement was palpable. When a CNN camera caught Vice President Dick Cheney being wheeled into the Capitol, the first of many heartfelt “boos” swelled among the ranks. In the main hall, the mayor, associate mayor, and the U.S. Ambassador to France had taken their places up on a podium. French television news crews weaved in and out of the standing audience, often nearly colliding with one another in their attempts to interview any and all interested parties.
At one point, the giant screens went dark and the mayor introduced the Golden Gate Quartet, four African American gentlemen who belted out a very jazzy version of America’s National Anthem. They began singing it a second time, much more reverentially and invited the audience to sing along. Many did. A few placed their hands over their hearts. Several guests had thought to bring American flags.
These were the same people who, back in April, cheered candidate Obama when he visited France. They were also active in fund raising and making sure that the turnout of American voters in Paris — and in other regions – was record-breaking.
The mayor took back the microphone and made a little speech, then handed it over to the U.S. ambassador, who did likewise. But by this time, the crowd was getting restless. A few people started chanting CNN, and they were quickly joined by the rest of the audience. Not wishing to start an insurrection, the screens were turned back on without further delay.
Paris was awash with images of Obama last week. His face was on virtually every daily newspaper, both French and international. Le Figaro put a stylish photo of Obama on the cover of its Sunday magazine. There were special inserts with coverage of the week’s events and stirring editorials on the “nouveau America” which was about to be realized. But Obama’s image was also being used in more commercial ways. Subway posters — designed to sell a set of new encyclopedias — featured the face of George Washington wearing an Obama ‘08 baseball cap. And on the Champs Elysees, the Virgin Record Store had put up a large image of Obama with Mount Rushmore as the backdrop — as if he was sure to be up there some day. How many denizens of Paris understood the iconic visual message is not reported.
As the time for the actual “investiture” neared, the guests in City Hall were getting more anxious. When it became clear that the proceedings were running late, Wolf Blitzer’s voice could be heard explaining that Obama had legally become President at high noon, with or without the oath. A cheer went up and people began talking among themselves up to the moment when the swearing in began.
When President Obama began his speech, a reverential hush descended. The assembled crowd undoubtedly expected a barn-burning, side-winding declaration of a new age. There was a phrase in which Obama spoke of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and people of no faith. To that latter category — of no faith — applause broke out around the room. So much for the religious left. An article in the French magazine devoted to religion mentioned that Obama’s parents were essentially secular and his brand of Christianity was his own, albeit grounded in tradition. The Inauguration Day edition of the left leaning newspaper Liberation had depicted Obama’s face in a prayer-like pose, describing him as having “profound sincerity” and referring to the huge promise he was bringing to the world.
One French pundit observed that only American politicians ended speeches with the invocation of “God bless America.” This was, he explained, because Americans believe in their country’s manifest destiny as a national religion. No confusion over separation of church and state in this scenario, one is bound to notice.
The more militaristic elements of Obama’s speech seemed to generate a similar confusion among the assembled liberals. There were no other noticeable breakouts of applause and, when it ended, there were no cheers to match the very vocal boos aimed at Bush and Cheney earlier. The next noise to capture one’s attention were the popping of champagne corks — and it was the good stuff. Perrier Jouet. People moved from room to room, or looked out of the windows at the Seine, perhaps trying to see some sign of the new world they felt had begun.
There was but one last communal moment to the evening’s festivities. Although Obama had said that it was time to put away childish things, the crowds all waved when the helicopter carrying Mr. and Mrs. Bush departed Washington, D.C. From around the room, there were various shouts. “Good riddance,” goodbye,” “enjoy your exile in Texas.” Then it was back to the champagne and gourmet hors’d oeuvres and dreams of how “le premiere President noir” would transform the world.