The inaugural line snaked from the door of city hall around to a corner more than 500 yards away. This was not the city hall in Washington, D.C., nor one in any other American city. It was the Hotel de Ville in Paris, headquarters of the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, and the hundreds of bureaucrats charged with administering the capital of France. Destroyed during the Paris Commune in the 1870s and rebuilt from 1873-1892, the ornate French Renaissance halls opened for the first time to an American association, Democrats Abroad, for a live, cross-cultural celebration of the inauguration of the first Black president of the United States.
In some ways, it was no surprise the event drew such a massive crowd. The French, and the hundreds of Americans living in Paris, were overwhelmingly in favour of the Obama candidacy. More than 80% of the French, according to polls, preferred Obama to John McCain. Now debate rages in France as to whether a Black candidate could accede to high office here. Fayçal Douhane, member of the national council of the French socialist party doubts it: "The French are not ready to vote for an Arab or a Black," he says. In fact, there is no Black mayor of a major French city. That the French are celebrating Obama's victory is more a function of their detestation of the Bush administration than their readiness to elect minorities to positions of power. Meanwhile, it's all-Obama all the time on French radio and in the national and local press, where Obama's photo graces virtually every front page.
Outside the Hotel de Ville, the throng was garrulous and expectant. Paul Horne, an economist and Paris resident, formerly of Smith Barney, had a special reason to be present. His son, Gabor Rona, an attorney with Human Rights First, is at Guantanamo where he's overseeing a trial of some of the detainees. "We wish he were here," Horne said, "but we know he'll be watching from Guantanamo." Cristal Fleming, a graduate student at Harvard, enthused about how Obama had "touched the world".
The crowd was filtered into the Hotel de Ville at 4 p.m. Paris time (10 a.m. in Washington). After climbing the majestic staircase, they assembled in the grand hall, a hundred yards long and studded with crystal chandeliers. An outsized screen, tuned to CNN, hung over the rostrum. Being Democrats Abroad, the crowd's reactions were perhaps predictable: images of Teddy Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Michelle Obama were greeted with raucous cheers; George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Clarence Thomas produced lusty boos. One spectator said of Cheney: "He really does look like Ebenezer Scrooge." A more polite reception was accorded George Bush senior, who was viewed as more of an internationalist and decidedly less partisan than his son.
Several minutes before Joe Biden took the vice-presidential oath. Paris's mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, addressed the crowd. After expressing his "amour" and "amitié" for the American people, Delanoë roused the participants, saying that today "the heart of Paris beats with the hearts of Americans." With a flourish, he concluded: "Vive le democracy Américain; vive Barack Obama!" Following the mayor, U.S. ambassador to France Craig Stapleton, in his last day on the job, inspired some chuckles when he quoted Fiorello La Guardia: "There is no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets."
After Obama's swearing in, the crowd melted into an adjoining room for canapés and champagne. They came back to hear a concert by the Golden Gate Quartet, which rocked into the night.
Forget the stereotype of the French as anti-American. They may be anti some Americans, but they've taken Barack Obama to their hearts.