- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

STRASBOURG, France | The French people adore him, but President Obama’s visit here Friday will bring him face to face with the two European leaders who have been among his fiercest critics on the world stage.

Fresh off his first high-profile international summit in London, Mr. Obama stops next on his world tour in the cradle of Obamamania.

“Everybody loves him here,” said Dominique Goy-Blanquiet, a literature professor at the Universite de Picardie in Paris.

Ms. Goy-Blanquiet and others talked about how the election of the first black American president showed the French a future of racial reconciliation that they have yet to achieve with their significant minority population.

“It is something we’re yearning for but haven’t quite got,” Ms. Goy-Blanquiet said. “We still dream that this kind of agreement could be possible.”

Omar Manga, 39, a freelance documentarian who was born in Cameroon and lives in Switzerland, traveled to this city of 700,000 on France’s eastern border with Germany hoping to see Mr. Obama in the flesh.

“For black people here, Barack is a symbol, a helpful symbol,” Mr. Manga said. “It makes people be a little more self-confident to see that, yes, it is possible. As he said, yes we can. Even if the society situation here is difficult, it brings us strength.”

Mr. Obama will meet with “young and diverse” foreign students at a town hall meeting Friday, sandwiched between meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Despite past feuding, Mr. Sarkozy and Mrs. Merkel have formed a united front against Mr. Obama in the debate over the world economic crisis.

“They have been very harsh and extremely critical of the U.S.,” said Steven Schrage, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under Colin L. Powell.

The White House has downplayed any disagreement with the Sarkozy-Merkel bloc.

Some observers, Mr. Obama said Thursday, “confused honest and open debate with irreconcilable differences.”

But it was clear in the weeks leading up to the Group of 20 summit that the White House and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had their eye on increased stimulus spending, drawing loud protests from Mrs. Merkel, who is up for re-election in September.

“I will not let anyone tell me that we must spend more money,” she said.

Mr. Sarkozy and Mrs. Merkel were adamant that the Group of 20 had to agree this week to stronger global regulation and possibly even a global regulator.

Mr. Sarkozy in particular took a hard line against Mr. Obama and Mr. Brown, threatening to walk out of the summit in London if concrete agreements were not reached.

No specific steps toward naming a global regulator were taken in London, and Mr. Sarkozy did not storm out. In fact, said he had achieved what he was seeking at the summit, calling the results “beyond what we could have imagined.”

Simon Serfaty, an analyst on U.S.-Europe relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the behavior of Mr. Sarkozy and Mrs. Merkel was motivated in part by domestic politics.

“The fact of the matter is that it’s widely expected that the next few months will be difficult politically in France,” as the country braces for more strikes and protests, Mr. Serfaty said.

The French media are forecasting difficulties between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Obama.

The cover of the left-leaning magazine Le Nouvel Observateur has a picture of the two waving with the question written in French: “Can they get along?”

Writing in Le Monde, commentator Marion Van Renterghem called the relationship between Europeans and the new U.S. president “a one-way love relationship.”

Europeans “are convinced that in a world that is more and more multipolar, the America of Obama needs them,” she wrote.

“The American president is not convinced.”

Mr. Schrage said the leaders will “paper over differences” in the meetings Friday.

“It will be cloaked in generalities and not diving down into areas of strong disagreement,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Manga and others will be hoping just to get a glimpse of Mr. Obama.

“They say on the radio, it is going to be very hard. It would be something special,” he said.

Anne-Laure Buffard in Paris and Christina Bellantoni in Washington contributed to this report.

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