The four friends who started the "Obama 17" campaign in Paris.
Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images
PARIS — A group of Parisian friends may have found a solution to their lack of enthusiasm for the current candidates running for president in France: recruit one of their own. And who better to do the job than someone who has already done the job once — just not in France.
Posters bearing the face of former US President Barack Obama began springing up on walls in the neighborhood of Le Marais last week, and since then, the idea has started gaining traction throughout the city.
“All of this started when we were having dinner and discussing the French elections. We thought, ‘Damn, another election where we are going to have to vote against [far-right candidate Marine Le Pen]’, then we started to think, why not voting for someone we really, really want to become our president?” the founder of “Obama2017.fr: a petition for a charismatic French President and a real international leader” told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.
The four thirtysomething Parisians who started the initiative say they hung posters of Obama on the capital’s walls “without any permission,” which allowed them to keep their identities secret to avoid punishment over copyright violations. Paris laws are extremely strict — hanging posters on a wall of a building you don’t own can carry a fine of up to 3,550 euros (about $3,800). But that didn’t stop the group from hanging 500 posters all over the city.
“It started as joke, turned into a Twitter phenomenon” and the petition has now gathered more than 42,000 signatures.
It’s not hard to see why French voters might be looking for a new option. Only a few weeks before the French presidential elections’ first-round polls, local papers report that Le Pen, a one-time longshot candidate on the far-right whose supporters closely mirror President Donald Trump’s in the US, might win. President Francois Hollande’s unpopular term has divided left-wing voters, who are lost in between three different liberal candidates: Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker, Benoit Hamon, who wants to launch a universal minimum wage, and Jean-Luc Melenchon, the French Sanders who claims he is the candidate of an “unsubmissive France” — although he does not specify to what France is currently submissive to.
In addition to this, the only center-right candidate, Francois Fillon, is involved in a corruption scandal.
“I am not going to lie, all we wanted to do was to make people laugh on their way to work,” the group member who spoke with BuzzFeed News said. “But on the other hand, we wanted people to think about the bigger picture than just electing a president for our country. In such a globalized world, we need to elect someone who will be able to deal with international issues, and Barack Obama surely has the power to do so.”
While Le Pen’s goal is to withdraw France from the eurozone and organize a French Brexit, other candidates have not expressed their views on international policies, especially their positions on migrants and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
“French people are tired of seeing the same elite being elected every five years. They might say they are from different parties, but at the end of the day, they are linked one way or another and corrupted,” the member said, pointing to the number of people who say they are simply not going to vote this year.
The petition site is hoping to collect 1 million signatures before March 15.
While the idea of Obama being the next French president is pretty unrealistic — you have to actually be French to be eligible, for starters — the swell of support that Obama2017.fr has seen might actually result in a change in the rules. “A few days ago, several lawyers contacted us to see if we could apply or vote a new law so non-French citizens could apply for the elections,” the group’s founder said, having set a goal of gathering a million signatures before March 15 to show the proposal’s value.
The one-time joke campaign has been picking up steam in the US press, with several outlets writing about the posters. The four friends, who all work in the entertainment industry, are trying to “show that France needs a change. We need someone who embodies modernity, serenity, integration, and certainly someone who would think twice before dropping any nuclear bomb on any country,” said the Obama2017.fr co-founder.
While neither the current nor most recent occupant of the White House has commented on the recruitment drive yet, the founder of the petition hopes that “Barack replies himself and hopefully will say yes. We did not think it was realistic at first, but we received so much support that we hope we might change something, or at least point out to our French candidates that we need a game-changer, ready to be a president and not simply being ‘the mayor of France.’”
France does have a certain history of quirky candidates. Actor Coluche, whose popularity turned him into a real threat against established politicians in the 1980s, eventually withdrew his nomination as his increasing appeal invited death threats against him. In 1995, a man called Jacques Cheminade wanted to become president to colonize the moon and Mars. He tried again, and failed, in 2012. Last but not least, in 2002, soft-porn actress Cindy Lee founded the “Pleasure party, for the right to have pleasure," announcing her presidential candidacy.
Since the campaign began gaining attention, founders of the Obama website have been encouraging followers to become ambassadors of the movement to spread the word. On March 15, France might have a new candidate.