PARIS - Hurrying home from work, Noellie Benison paused to take in the grinning poster of the former U.S. president, flanking a busy meridian in northern Paris.
“Obama 2017,” she read out. Below: the French translation of his famous tagline, “Oui, on peut" — "Yes we can.”
“If Obama runs, I'll vote for him, that’s for sure,” said 55-year-old Benison, who is planning to cast a blank ballot in this spring’s presidential vote.
“We’ve lost our confidence,” she added, dismissing the current crop of candidates. “They’re all the same.”
What started as a joke over beers by a quartet of Parisians in their 30s has made international news in less than a week. Today, Obama2017.fr - an online petition to put Barack Obama on the French ballot, has received 50,000 signatures, its organizers say.
“We were talking about how we always feel we’re voting against and never for something,” one of the organizers said in an interview, describing how the initiative was born. “And then we started thinking it would be so great to have Obama as president.”
Besides soliciting smiles, the tongue-and-cheek petition is resonating in a disaffected France, where many of the same faces crop up vote after vote.
With the exception of former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, a relative neophyte, this spring’s presidential election appears no different. Further souring the political offer, two of the front runners, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and conservative former prime minister Francois Fillon, face financing scandals.
“This election season is so anxiety ridden,” said historian Nicole Bacharan, an expert on U.S. politics. “All the contenders seem tainted or not right. Not enough experience or all the wrong experience. Certainly no one who can make people dream.”
That’s essentially the message of Obama2017. Its website calls for nothing short of a Sixth Republic that would usher in a new system of governance “to bring France out of its lethargy.”
With Obama jobless, “Why not hire him as president of France?” it asks.
Still the odds are daunting. To begin with, the group needs to collect one million signatures by March 15 to put Obama on the ballot. Then he needs to become a French citizen, although one enthusiastic lawyer tipped the Obama2017.fr team on how this could be fast-tracked.
Campaign financing is another headache. The Paris group pooled their centimes to pay for the Obama posters in the capital; a nationwide rollout was out of the question.
“It was an expensive joke,” the campaigner admitted with a grin.
Obama’s own views about taking office here are not known. His favorite cheeseburgers and fries are widely available in Paris. So are basketball courts. Efforts to contact his media team for comment, however, proved unsuccessful.
Still, Parisian voters interviewed gave his candidacy a thumbs-up.
“Obama was a very kind man,” said one retiree, who only gave his first name, Jacques. “I would vote for him. I wouldn’t vote for Marine le Pen.”
Europe greeted Obama’s election a decade ago with euphoria, a sentiment that waned as his two-term presidency focused more on domestic and Asian-Pacific issues than Europe. But a Pew Research Center poll last June found the majority of citizens in five European Union countries surveyed were confident he would do the right thing in world affairs. That included 86 percent of Germans, and 84 percent of French.
“I think there was hardly any country where Barack Obama as more popular than in France,” analyst Bacharan said. “Even though his popularity dwindled a little bit at the end, he still remains this heroic figure: elegant, charismatic, smart, young, connected.”
The Obama2017.fr team says it is apolitical, but disturbed by divisions splintering French society, based mostly on economic divides, the campaigner interviewed said, than ethnic or religious ones.
But there have been protests against alleged police abuse and discrimination against minorities. Rights groups are also worried about discrimination against the country’s Muslim community, particularly after the terror attacks in Paris and Nice.
“I think someone like Obama can unite us, can focus us on a project and a future,” the campaigner said.
Asked if France was ready for a black president, he added, “I think Obama would be perfect. He’s done the job in the U.S., exactly the way we would need someone to do it in France.”
“Sadly, I’m quite sure France is not ready for a black president,” analyst Bacharan said. “But the French would be ready for Barack Obama. Worldwide, he lost his color; he just became an American president.”