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 the ghettos."
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.
U.S. 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.
"We 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.
"International 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.
"What 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."
Since 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.
The 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.
The 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.
"It 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.