PARIS — People gawked and cameras clicked as the Obamas cut a wide figure through the French capital, even while confined to a presidential motorcade. It was more personal for the few not kept so distant — the restaurant owner who “saw God,” the chauffeur reveling in a “magnificent mission.”
President Barack Obama, wife Michelle and their two daughters touched lives in simple ways during a private stay in the French capital that closed out a six-day presidential tour rich in history, symbolism and giant messages to the world.
Even a Sunday visit to the gilded Elysee presidential palace was casual and intimate.
The luncheon hosted by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla, for Michelle and the two Obama daughters looked like an advance fete for Sasha’s 8th birthday this Wednesday. The Obama trio, lingering a bit in the City of Light after the president’s departure, then went shopping at the high-end Left Bank store for children, Bonpoint.
Media scrutiny of the family was intense. The French are confirmed fans of the Obamas, whose politics and elegant style conform to their ideal vision of the United States. The couple makes frequent appearances on the covers of French magazines. Michelle Obama, whose wardrobe choices are often analyzed, gets an A-plus for sartorial glamour, natural poise and sheer intelligence.
But the common touch the first American couple represents, so antithetical to the traditional pomp and circumstance of French heads of state, sets them apart.
When dining out last Saturday night at a no-star bistro, La Fontaine de Mars, the presidential party was served water, Coke and table wine to accompany foie gras, lamb and steak with shallots, and paid for meals “like any client,” said owner Jacques Boudon. “It’s just what they wanted.”
“And I think they were very happy, since they stayed three-quarters of an hour after dining,” he said by telephone.
Boudon was over the moon.
The table had been reserved 10 days earlier but he only knew his guests were the Obamas that morning.
“I saw God before me,” he said, “because I saw this smile that a million people have seen around the world. I saw her (Michelle) radiant. … It’s idiotic, but it’s like that.”
It was no surprise that the streets of Paris were lined with well-wishers. When the Obamas dined out, neighbors in nearby apartments hung from windows hoping for a glimpse. Some real fans hung a handmade sign reading “We love you Obama.”
Even the conservative Sarkozy appreciates Obama’s personal style and, multiplying direct contact with citizens, is de-sanctifying the office.
Sarkozy had worked to lure Obama to France, trying to get him here in early April between a G20 summit in London and a NATO summit in Germany and Strasbourg, in eastern France. Obama said it was a squeeze and suggested the D-Day commemoration at Normandy, a presidential official has said.
The family’s Paris agenda included a trip to Notre Dame Cathedral last Saturday evening. There, Obama lit a candle and listened to a children’s choir. On Sunday morning, it was the Pompidou Center, the modern art mecca in central Paris, where two exhibitions are currently featured, the works of American sculptor Alexander Calder and Vassily Kandinsky, the Russian-born painter who helped pioneer abstract art.
The family spent some 90 minutes inside the museum, distinguished by its exposed colored piping, and at one point the president was seen waving from a top-floor glassed-in walkway that provides a sweeping view of the city.
But it was the few brief minutes that Obama spent with 61-year-old Gerard Daldoss and other drivers in the presidential motorcade that mattered.
Before climbing into his limousine in the Pompidou Center’s underground parking garage, Obama shook the men’s hands, then posed for a group photo.
“It’s fantastic. What a beautiful souvenir!” exclaimed a beaming Daldoss.
He said he has worked in motorcades for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush without ever getting such hands-on gratitude.
“The others were nice, but not more than that,” Daldoss said. “I retire in a few months. This is a magnificent mission.”
The tourism followed a somber remembrance last Saturday on the 65th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy with Sarkozy and elderly veterans. That trip was preceded by a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and an address in Cairo to the world’s Muslims, a bold effort to heal enmity toward the United States borne by large swaths of the Islamic world.
At his own behest, Obama had flown into Paris last Friday night without a formal airport welcome from Sarkozy, while Michelle and the kids were visiting the Eiffel Tower.
Some French pundits wonder whether Sarkozy’s admiration for Obama is reciprocal. Their meetings have so far been official — unlike the picnic-style lunch Sarkozy shared with the Bush family at their Kennebunkport, Maine, compound shortly after taking office.
However, a visible sign of Obama’s French connection may just be his own family’s decision to linger in the land of France after his departure — and have an informal Sarkozy moment with the kids.
Associated Press writer Scott Sayare contributed to this report.