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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Obamania grips Europe ahead of visit by "John Kennedy of our time"

Agence France-Press

Obamania is all the rage ahead of next week's visit to Berlin, Paris and London by a man described in newspapers as a "John Kennedy of our time" and Europe's champion in the race for the White House.

If western Europeans could vote in November's presidential election, Barack Obama, the 46-year-old Democratic senator, would be a shoo-in, according to a recent opinion poll conducted on behalf of Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Seventy percent of Italians, 67 percent of Germans, 65 percent of the French and 49 percent of Britons would vote Obama.

This compared to just 15 percent in Italy, 6 percent in Germany, 8 percent in France, and 14 percent in Britain for Obama's Republican rival, John McCain, whose support for the war in Iraq is seen as a continuation of the policy of the current White House tenant, George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, in France, books about Obama sell like hot cakes.

In Britain and Germany, flattering newspaper profiles compare him to former US president John F. Kennedy.

And both Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social-democrat, and Italy's left-wing opposition leader Walter Veltroni have adopted Obama's "Yes we can" slogan for their political speeches.

In Spain, the new prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has gone one further by publicly endorsing the Democratic senator.

"Yes, I like him," he told a Financial Times journalist who asked him if he wanted to see Obama in the White House.

In Germany, where leaders usually tread with caution on international issues, Obama's upcoming visit triggered an unseemly row within the coalition government.

Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized him for wanting to use Berlin's Brandenburg Gate -- a symbol of the country's reunification after 40 years of Cold War -- as a backdrop for a campaign speech, while Steinmeier openly welcomed such a move.

US president Ronald Reagan visited the site and famously called in 1987 on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin wall which at the time surrounded it.

Both Merkel and Steinmeier have since tried to tone down the dispute by proclaiming their delight at the visit and announcing they will hold separate talks with the senator on Thursday.

Obama, the press says, still intends to address a large public meeting during his trip to Berlin, but his aides were considering other possible venues for the speech -- including Tempelhof airport, which made history 60 years ago as the heart of the airlift to break the Soviet blocade of west Berlin.

Another option would be the winged Victory column, erected in the centre of Berlin in the late 19th century to celebrate Prussia's defeat of Denmark, Austria, and France.

Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, believes Obama appeals to Germans because of his apparent willingness to listen and hear what people abroad have to say.

"After eight years of George W. Bush that's a welcome change," she added.

"Germans, more than anyone else, have also long been fans of the German-American bond" which explains why Obama has chosen Berlin for his major public campaign speech.

Stelzenmueller warned however that Europeans might have set their hopes too high.

"Germans are projecting a lot on Obama because his mixed heritage is seen as making him more multicultural" and open to the world, but "exaggerated expectations are bound to be disappointed" in the long term, she said.

In Britain, Trevor McCrisken, associate professor of US politics and international studies at Warwick University, offered a similar analysis of why Obama appeals to Britons.

"I think there's a pretty certain feeling on this side of the Atlantic that any Democrat would be an excellent alternative to Bush because they would be much more outward looking, listening more to European allies," he said.

Obama's charisma played well and the colour of his skin was a symbol of the change he offered.

"Here, I think it's more symbolic of him being a very different kind of politician," he said. "It demonstrates how the outlook for the rest of the world will change compared to under Bush."

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