STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - From cheering fans lining the streets to an adoring crowd packed into a sports arena, Obama-mania was in full swing in Europe on Friday.
The excitement generated by U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to both sides of the French-German border was a sharp contrast to the angry protests that often greeted his predecessor George W. Bush on trips to the continent.
“I wanted to tell you that your name in Hungarian means ‘peach’,” a girl from Heidelberg, Germany, gushed to Obama, at a townhall meeting.
The style and substance of Obama’s tour were also different to Bush, who was unpopular among Europeans because of the Iraq war and a list of contentious policies.
While Bush usually confined his European itinerary to contacts with the political and business elite, Obama set out on Friday to hear the voices of ordinary citizens.
“What we thought was important was for me to have an opportunity not only to speak to you but to hear from you,” he said in the French city of Strasbourg where he held a townhall-type meeting, a question-and-answer forum he used in the presidential campaign.
Obama made the case for more NATO help to win the war in Afghanistan, seeming to test whether his pop-star popularity could be leveraged into policy gains with European leaders.
Not everyone was convinced.
“It will take a lot more for us to believe the war in Afghanistan is worth it,” said English teacher Stephanie Houley, 30.
From a stage at the Rhenus Sports Arena, he hit the right buttons for a European audience, admitting partial U.S. blame for the global economic crisis and promising a greater U.S. role combating climate change than Bush.
The crowd cheered when Obama spoke of his plan to close the internationally condemned U.S. military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and reiterated that torture would not be allowed on his watch.
Since taking office on January 20, Obama has moved to roll back some of Bush’s more divisive security policies as part of his effort to repair the United States’ image abroad.
In scenes repeating his European visit last year as a presidential candidate, Obama was cheered when he arrived in Strasbourg and received a kiss from a woman in the crowd as he headed for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Imparting advice to his mostly youthful audience, Obama also sought to counter a stereotype of Americans as a driven only by material wants, a view that only deepened by Wall Street excesses at the heart of the global economic crisis.
“I found at a very young age was that if you only think about yourself — how much money can I make, what can I buy, how nice is my house, what kind of fancy car do I have — that over the long term I think you get bored,” he said.
He also used his visit to France, a country that has sometimes had strained relations with the United States, to speak out against “casual” anti-American sentiment.
And he took his fellow citizens to task for “times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive” toward Europe.
Some in the Bush administration derided “Old Europe” for refusing to go along with some of its foreign policy moves.
Obama also said he missed the days when on a trip to Europe “I could just wander down to a cafe and sit and have some wine and watch people go by.”