Not since Jackie Kennedy has an American woman impressed the French so much.
Now comes Condoleezza Rice, poised, cool, an intellectual who plays classical piano. She's no little lady, "first" or not. She's secretary of state, America's top diplomat. Rice doesn't fit Europe's "Ugly American" stereotype of a loud, brash New World bumpkin.
She wowed the French during her trip through Europe and parts of the Middle East. She'll always have critics. But it was clear from European press coverage that Rice earned respect for her "courage," as several French academics put it, for taking her diplomatic road show to the heart of Europe's discontent about the Bush administration's war in Iraq.
Rice personalized, in a way that only a black person can, the rift between Europe and the United States over the war in Iraq. She used America's civil-rights struggles to illustrate how the French and Americans share the values of freedom and human dignity. "In my own experience, a black woman named Rosa Parks was just tired one day of being told to sit in the back of the bus. So she refused to move, and she launched a revolution for freedom in the American South," Rice said.
She alluded to the Founding Fathers' own contradictions when it came to defending the rights of black people to be free. "Even the great authors of our liberty sometimes fell short of liberty's promise; even (Thomas) Jefferson himself, a slave owner," Rice said, pointing to America's third president who also served as ambassador to France.
"Human imperfections do not discredit democratic ideals; they make them more precious," she added.
Certainly President Bush couldn't be seen as more imperfect throughout Europe. They love to use the "cowboy" moniker to describe Bush -- and not just to illustrate his can-do Texan demeanor, but his shoot-from-the-hip, ask-questions-later foreign policy. Not that Rice hasn't shot from the hip, too.
She didn't endear herself to Europeans during the administration's battles with the United Nations over Iraq. At one point, she said, the United States would do well to "punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia" for their roles in opposing U.S. intervention in Iraq. Sacre bleu!
With the Iraqi elections a cautious success, though, there are new opportunities to pursue. And the French do love mea culpas. Rice took off that U.S. holster and offered another definition for the word "power ... even more important than military and, indeed, economic power is the power of ideas, the power of compassion and the power of hope."
America's top diplomat chose just the right words to talk tough about terrorist threats and countries that would aid such efforts (Syria and Iran), while offering an olive branch to the French and the rest of Europe, where the vast majority has opposed the Iraq war. Rice harkened back a half-century ago to Europe's struggles against Nazism and later communism to make her case for the potential of budding democracies and peace in the Middle East.
"We have had our disagreements, but it is time to turn away from the disagreements of the past. It is time to open a new chapter in our relationship and a new chapter in our alliance," she said at the prestigious school of political science Sciences Politiques in Paris.
From a Cold War policy of partnerships based on common threats to one that focuses on common opportunities in the 21st century -- that was Rice's message for Europe, preparing the groundwork for Bush's coming visit.
French President Jacques Chirac offered his own conciliatory, if guarded, tone, saying that France will support the Iraqis during their transition to democracy. The United States also is working with France to ensure elections in Lebanon.
French fries are back -- at least while the diplomatic honeymoon lasts.
-- Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.