Strasbourg, France It was perhaps not what Michelle Obama expected on her first presidential foray to France. But it was certainly very French.
Anti-war and anti-capitalist protesters tangled the streets of the Alsatian city of Strasbourg and thwarted her planned visit to an anti-cancer research center with other spouses of NATO leaders.
Police barricades and narrow pedestrian streets that wind through the city center meant she couldn’t get there and back by motorcade.
So the visit was shelved, and they had an unplanned coffee with the French first lady instead. A few miles away, Molotov cocktails and tear gas canisters exploded as protesters pushed back riot police, filling the spring air with smoke and acrid stench. Nearby, 28 NATO leaders met to choose a new chief for the alliance and seek answers for Afghanistan.
Such violence is not all that common here. But marches, strikes and demonstrations are a standard form of public expression in France, and cars are regularly burned on the weekends in Stasbourg’s poorer neighborhoods.
Michelle Obama and the other spouses stuck to their main event of the day: a visit to an 11th-century cathedral, a UNESCO-protected monument in the historic city center.
It wasn’t a women-only affair — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer, joined them, too.
They had Strasbourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral largely to themselves, since the towering marvel of Gothic architecture was part of the “red zone” of the city restricted to outsiders.
Earlier, the last-minute hospital visit cancellation caused a protocol mishap. The spouses were sent to the 18th century Palais de Rohan instead of the hospital, but the wives of the Slovenian president and the Albanian president and prime minister showed up too fast — even before their hostess, Bruni-Sarkozy.
The French first lady, a former supermodel, handled it with aplomb, striding in wearing black pants and a camel coat, and shaking each arrival by hand.
Michelle Obama arrived last in a belted black coat — and was the only one to win a double-cheek kiss from Carla. The two held hands briefly for the cameras.
The American first lady appeared to come away from the day with a host of new international friends. The French “premiere dame” had something more tangible to take home: Michelle Obama gave Carla Bruni-Sarkozy a Gibson acoustic guitar.