A decades-old U.S. government program to send future leaders from
foreign countries to the United States is gaining new attention -
particularly in France, where it is targeting minorities, including
Muslims, and aims to present a more accurate image of America. Lisa
Bryant has more from Paris.
Like many French, 35-year-old
Mohamed Hamidi has a mixed opinion of the United States - one that has
not changed since he went on a trip to America earlier this year, a
trip paid for by the U.S. government.
"It was not a positive
point of view before and it is not a positive point of view now," said
Hamidi. "I think it is nearly the same. I think there is a lot of
good things in the U.S. - a lot of good things in the economy, in the
diversity, in the dynamism. But I think there is a lot of negative
things in the U.S. too: social things, the problems with poor people in
A high school teacher in the Paris suburb of
Bondy, Hamidi is among hundreds of French to have taken part in a
five-decade old program sponsored by the U.S. government to send future
leaders to the United States. Its aim is to give international
visitors a close up view of the United States and ordinary Americans.
The program's alumni include French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
embassies have recently been encouraged to target minority leaders for
the visitors program, particularly Muslims, although only a relatively
small number have been selected in France, home to five million Muslims
- Europe's largest community.
Many are Arabs and Africans,
who live in France's low-income suburbs that erupted into violence in
2005. It appears their perceptions of the United States are a mix of
admiration for its music and movies and dislike of its foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.
James Bullock is head of public affairs at the U.S. embassy in Paris.
recognize that there are also leaders in the minority community," he
said. "We want to make sure that they are included in these programs.
Because when they come back - and we do try to stay in contact - we can
build on their experience, their three weeks in the States, the
contacts, the ideas they had. And we hope to have a positive
influence. Not to propagandize things and say America is all good,
America is always right. Not at all."
The drive to give foreign
visitors a more accurate picture of America is also shaped by the
September 11 attacks on the United States, almost seven years ago.
terrorism is certainly a challenge," said Bullokc. "And if our programs
to build better mutual understanding helps to delegitimize the appeal
of terrorism to young people growing up in the French suburbs, then
wonderful. We are not going to take the place of the people who work
in security, police or the military."
An expert on Islam in
France, Franck Fregosi, participated in the U.S. visitors program in
the past. He says young French from the suburbs in particular can
learn that American society is much more diverse than they imagine.
is the case of France is to make these young people living in the
suburbs understand that the United States is a very complicated society
in which you have very different societies and these societies can live
together," said Fregosi. "And I think that is one of the main issues
of this international visitors' program - to make us understand what is
going on in the United States. And how the U.S. government deals with
diversity in the United States."
Participant Mohamed Hamidi is
an ethnic Algerian whose parents are practicing Muslims although he
is not. He spent three weeks touring the United States in May,
visiting Washington, D.C, Mississippi, New York and Los Angeles. He
saw poverty and tough neighborhoods, but he also says he was impressed
by the diversity in the U.S. government.
During his visit,
Hamidi had a chance to meet U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama,
who is black, at a rally in Philadelphia.
"I was very impressed
by the people and the man," said Hamidi. "I think for us in France,
Barack Obama is an example. In France, people from Africa or North
Africa or Asia ... you have no deputy, no senator black or Arabic. In
the U.S. you have one who can be the president of the country."
coming back to France, Hamidi has been writing about his experience in
the United States in his blog and speaking about it to his students.
U.S. focus on the suburbs has received new and not always accurate
media coverage here. One French article suggested the CIA was
recruiting in the suburbs.
Efforts to build cultural bridges are not new.
French government, for example, has programs in the Bronx, a tough New
York City borough, and brings Muslims and other visitors to France to
get a better understanding about its idea of secularity and the
separation of religion and state.
Bullock says the message of the visitors' program is simple.
is a very general message," he said. "That America is a diverse
country. That Americans are going to work every day, trying to make a
living. Trying to get their kids through school - all the things that
people in France are trying to do."
As for Hamidi, he says that
while his trip to the United States has not changed his view of
America, it has changed the way he thinks about France.