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Michelle Obama's conquest of Europe

As the president seeks to rebuild ties, the first lady is unveiling her own foreign engagement, blending a high-wattage celebrity with a message of self-reliance and personal possibility.

April 05, 2009|Christi Parsons

STRASBOURG, FRANCE — So far on her trip to Europe, Michelle Obama has hugged the queen of England, double cheek-kissed the glamorous first lady of France and electrified the celebrity-obsessed tabloids.

When she talked to students at a school for underprivileged girls in London, though, her message was about her working-class childhood and her success gained through strong values and hard work in school.

In other words, she may be wearing Jimmy Choo kitten heels these days, but the first lady pulled herself up by an old-fashioned pair of American bootstraps.

In President Obama's first official visit overseas, he is preaching a new foreign policy, calling on Europeans to set aside negative feelings toward the U.S. in favor of an era of friendship and cooperation.

And Michelle Obama is unveiling her own policy of foreign engagement, one that blends a high-wattage celebrity with a message about self-reliance and personal possibility -- a story of special resonance on a continent where no minorities have risen to such prominence.

The president is asking the world to embrace a new regard for his country. The first lady appears to be trying to show them why they might want to.

Her reception by world leaders and the European public has been exuberant, with ardent crowds gathering at every stop. Audience members at one event were so excited to get the hugs she was dispensing that Secret Service agents got a little nervous.

The BBC in one report described Michelle Obama as her husband's co-star in Europe. The London Times, noting the European love affair with former supermodel and current French First Lady Carla Bruni, asked, "Carla who?"

The tour brings to mind the reception for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on her husband's 1961 European trip, which prompted President Kennedy to introduce himself as "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."

No doubt, Michelle Obama's style evokes the glamour of a Kennedyesque order. She has sported creations from Thakoon Panichgul, Jason Wu and Junya Watanabe, and caused a particular stir with the black-and-white Isabel Toledo dress she wore at events during the G-20 summit in London.

The fashion press pronounced her every bit the equal of Bruni, with whom she seemed to have formed a friendship during the NATO summit here. Onlookers thought the two appeared sad as they parted ways Saturday after a visit to the Strasbourg cathedral.

The European continent closely eyed the first lady's other A-list get-togethers -- Queen Elizabeth invited the Obamas for a private audience -- as well as visits to the Royal Opera House in London and the Palais Rohan here.

But the glitz was not the first lady's overriding message. She mixed her Jason Wu with a little J. Crew, that fixture of the suburban shopping mall (the retailer sold out of its $298 crystal constellation cardigan, apparently within a day after Obama wore it on an outing in London).

What's more, Obama flouted upper-crust protocol at times, at one point reaching an arm around to actually hug the queen. (No harm, said Buckingham Palace. "We don't issue instructions on not touching the queen.")

"Michelle walks in and she is as she seems," Olympian Kelly Holmes told reporters after having dinner with Obama at 10 Downing Street.

What she is, the first lady said in her only lengthy address overseas, is the child of a working-class family from the South Side of Chicago.

"There is nothing in my story that would land me here," Obama said, speaking Thursday to students at London's Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language School, where girls are encouraged to "learn without limits."

"I wasn't raised with wealth or resources or any social standing to speak of," she said. "My father was a city worker all of his life, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom."

She got ahead through education, Obama told the girls, saying she thought "being smart is cooler than anything in the world" and urging them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, too.

"Nothing in my life's path would have predicted that I'd be standing here as the first African American first lady of the United States of America," she told the students, many of whom also belong to ethnic minority groups.

"You, too, with these same values, can control your own destiny," she said. "You too can pave the way. You too can realize your dreams, and then your job is to reach back and to help someone just like you do the same thing."

It was an emotional experience for the first lady, and some of the girls were moved to tears in a visit Britain is still discussing.

"She has had more impact on Europe than any first lady since Jackie Kennedy," said Muriel Dobbin, who covered the White House from 1962 to 2005 for the Baltimore Sun and McClatchy newspapers.

But Michelle Obama's warmth and spontaneity took her further, Dobbin said, allowing her to "charm the curmudgeonly British press corps, and the queen herself."


Times staff writer Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.

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