Obama Can't Escape Americans At European Town Hall

05/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

STRASBOURG, France — Who knew Europe had so many Americans?

President Barack Obama found out when he held a town-hall meeting for German and French citizens Friday.

Inside the cavernous Rhenus Sports Arena on the French-German border, Americans kept raising their hands.

The first person called on, a young lady, was American. The irony of the moment led Obama to declare: "Now, I just want to say I did not call on the American on purpose."

He issued a plea after answering her question.

"All right, now. I know there's some other Americans in the crowd. But do me a favor, Americans. Wait till we get back home and I'll do a town hall there, because I want to hear from my French and German and European friends," he said.

But two questions later he called on ... another American.

"Hello Mr. President. I'm sorry, I'm from Chicago. Excuse me," said the questioner, another young woman.

Obama started to object.

"Well, no, I'm sorry. If you're American I can't ...," he said. She quickly added that she's also French.

"What does that mean?" he said.

"Double nationality," she replied.

"Dual nationality," the president said, before turning to the audience. "What do you think? Should we let her ask the question?" The audience gave its consent. "OK, go ahead."

And so the woman with dual nationality asked two questions: whether the economic crisis was an opportunity for industries to become more ecological, and whether the promised White House dog had arrived.

Soon, on the dog, he said, and yes on green opportunities for business.


His appearance at the arena was billed as a town hall, but that turned out to be a bit of a stretch.

Obama told the audience of largely French and German students that he wanted the town-hall format because "often times during these foreign trips you see everything from behind a window. I thought it was important for me to have an opportunity to not only speak to you but also to hear from you."

He then proceeded to hold forth for about 25 minutes, touching on everything from his meeting earlier Friday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the global economic crisis to a defense of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

That left time for only five people to ask questions.

Later, Obama got a gentle rap for the length of his answers.

During a media availability with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Baden-Baden, Germany, she remarked that they needed to leave soon to be on time for a reception for the heads of state arriving for the NATO summit.

"That was an indication that my answers have been too long," Obama told his questioner. "So I'll make this one quick."


Nearly 3,500 tickets were distributed for the town hall.

Among those in the audience were students from Strasbourg and elsewhere in Europe who participate in the Atlantic Youth Council, a group of students from across the continent who study NATO, the White House said.

Obama was in Europe to attend a NATO summit.


His fifth and final questioner made it clear at the outset that she was not American.

"I'm totally European," the young woman from Heidelberg, Germany, said.

She taught him a new Hungarian word, too.

"First of all, I wanted to tell you that your name in Hungarian means 'peach,'" she said.

In fact, 'Barack' is the Hungarian word for the fuzzy fleshed fruit.

"Ok, well, how about that. I did not know that," a seemingly surprised Obama said.

"Yes, now you know it," she replied, then asked whether he ever regretted running for president.

Obama might not have known it, but his supporters in the U.S. certainly did. During the campaign, they used the language play to gather supporters for peach festivals in Colorado, Michigan and Massachusetts.


Visiting Europe just isn't the same anymore now that he is president, Obama lamented.

Before becoming a political celebrity, he said that when he visited Europe he was free to wander down to a cafe, sip wine, do some people-watching and shopping, and watch the sun set.

"Now, I'm in hotel rooms all the time and I have security around me all the time," said Obama, who is in the midst of his first overseas trip as president.

Answering the query about regrets, he also noted the loss of "privacy and anonymity."

But he was quick to add that "there's nothing more noble than public service."

"Now that doesn't mean you have to run for president," he said, telling the students that there are many different ways to get involved.


The American president who speaks only English tossed out a lot of foreign words as he stood with Sarkozy and Merkel.

He opened the town hall with "Bon apres-midi," or "Good afternoon."

He talked about the ideals on which the French and American republics were founded: "liberte," "egalite" and "fraternite," better-known as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Before the Q-and-A, he acknowledged that "my French and German are terrible" and noted the presence of translators.

Concluding his appearance in Baden-Baden, Obama remarked that "my German is not as good as Chancellor Merkel's."

To which she retorted, in English: "What a surprise, Mr. President."