A First Lady Style Showdown? Not Exactly (April 4, 2009)Video: Michelle Obama's Speech in London (Channel 4 News)
April 4, 2009
A French Embrace for Mrs. Obama
By HELENE COOPER
STRASBOURG, France — Michelle Obama’s big moment finally arrived Friday morning, at the Palais Rohan, a mammoth baroque edifice here that has given shelter to Louis XV, Marie Antoinette and even Napoleon.
And on Friday, it provided the backdrop for Mrs. Obama’s equivalent of the Jackie-Kennedy-takes-Paris moment of 1961. No, Mrs. Obama didn’t give a big speech or negotiate a tricky diplomatic incident. She went heel to heel with Carla Sarkozy.
There they were, currently the two most famous first ladies in the world, standing side by side — Mrs. Obama, of course, a few inches taller than Mrs. Sarkozy, but not towering over her as she had over Queen Elizabeth II. There they were, exchanging the first kiss-kiss, on both cheeks, the European way, clasping each other’s hands, as the Sarkozys welcomed the Obamas to the palace, all to the soundtrack of the clacking of the paparazzi cameras. And there they were, striking identical demure poses, wearing identical bow ties on their coat-dresses, as their men strutted around the red-carpeted inner courtyard, this time to the soundtrack of “La Marseillaise” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In the four days of her first European trip as America’s first lady, Mrs. Obama has hugged terminally ill cancer patients at a London hospital, chatted with the author J. K. Rowling over wild Scottish salmon and, her voice cracking with emotion, urged 200 well-behaved ethnically minority (for England) girls at a London school to aim high.
But none of that, not even the meeting with the queen, can come close to finally appearing in the same camera lens with the former Carla Bruni, an Italian-born singer and former Victoria’s Secret model now dominating the French political-fashion scene. All of Europe had been speculating about why it was that Mrs. Sarkozy did not show up in London for the Group of 20 meeting on Thursday. The official explanation from the Élysée Palace was that she wanted some quiet time by herself.
Hmm. Maybe it was all of the comparison of the two women in the European media? Mrs. Sarkozy sparked “Carla mania” last year when she visited Britain as France’s first lady, but the British press is fickle. “Carla Bruni may have seduced every man she met last year, but this year Michelle Obama charmed us all,” raved The Guardian in an article headlined, “How Britain was wooed by Michelle Obama.” The Times of London was nastier. “Carla who?” it queried Thursday.
Certainly, Mrs. Obama has done a fair amount of wooing so far. During her appearance at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London on Thursday, she sent girls into a frenzy just by showing up. “Nothing in my life’s path would have predicted that I would be standing here as the first African-American first lady of the United States,” she told them. When she started to tear up, the girls, responded, collectively, “Awww.” They treated her like a rock star, and Mrs. Obama responded in kind. After a rousing rendition of a song called, “I’m Going All the Way,” which came with a funky groove, Mrs. Obama slapped the hand of the young soloist. The girl literally hopped with excitement.
Mrs. Obama even surprised — and discomfited — her Secret Service agents, when, after her speech at the school, she started hugging every girl in sight.
During the dinner at 10 Downing Street with Ms. Rowling, of “Harry Potter” fame, and Kelly Holmes, of Olympic gold running fame, Mrs. Obama received warm reviews, especially after she told everyone to call her Michelle. “Michelle walks in and she is as she seems,” Ms. Holmes told reporters afterward. “So warm, engaging, a beautiful lady — and I quickly got my photo in the middle of her and Sarah Brown,” the wife of the British prime minister, Gordon Brown.
It is not exactly mastering nuclear physics to smile nicely, shake hands, and visit sick patients, the traditional job of a first lady. And Mrs. Obama has yet to stake out her own territory on a big do-gooding issue, à la Angelina Jolie and African poverty, or even Mrs. Sarkozy, who recently signed on with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria as the fund’s first formal celebrity envoy.
Even the small blip in her performance, when she touched the queen in a breach of protocol, was declared a no-foul by a Buckingham Palace spokesman. And the British press raved about her clothes.
Still, everyone knows that France is the fashion capital (although maybe not Strasbourg). Upon their arrival on Air Force One, the Obamas drove in a motorcade to the Palais Rohan for the meeting. Mr. Sarkozy was all bonhomie as he scampered around the Obamas, ushering them this way and that.
Possibly realizing that she would be judged against a European fashion icon, Mrs. Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, brought her A game. Resplendent in a burgundy Thakoon coat and dress (her counterpart was in Dior), her hair coiffed into a bouffant that would have made Mrs. Kennedy proud, she stood toe-to-toe with Mrs. Sarkozy.
Afterward, the two women retired inside the palace. “They had lunch together and a lively conversation,” said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, an aide to Mrs. Obama. “They got along very well.”