When Vice President Kamala Harris visited an American military cemetery outside Paris this week, she stopped at the grave of an Oakland woman who had served as a telephone operator during World War I.
Harris’ guide said these women, known as “Hello Girls”, were experts in working with telephone lines. His comment prompted Harris to make a quick point.
“It was one of the few jobs women could have,” said the first female vice president in US history. “Because they could have been surgeons too.”
Harris’s trip to France offered her the opportunity to reveal herself on the world stage – highlighting her status as the first woman, and first woman of color, to serve in such a tall office in the United States – after spending 10 months focusing on COVID-19 pandemic and other crises that have hit it reputation in the house.
While introducing himself to America’s oldest ally, the vice president does so in personal terms.
She visited a Parisian laboratory where her mother, a scientist of Indian origin, conducted medical research and, as part of her Veterans Day remembrance, went to the grave of the companion who broke the wards in Oakland, Harris’ hometown. His keynote speech at the Paris Peace Forum on Thursday included references to his mother along with broader themes about growing inequality around the world.
“My mom and her work taught me the power of the short and very important question,” Harris said in his 13-minute speech. “This question is because history is full of leaders – leaders in science, politics, business, the arts and education – leaders who refuse to accept the status quo, who asked why, who acted.”
Harris said problems such as viruses, economic inequality, cyber attacks and climate change do not respect borders and can only be solved with cooperation between countries.
Harris’s two previous overseas trips as vice president – to Latin America and Asia – were limited by COVID-19 restrictions and overshadowed by the controversies surrounding her. observations on USA-Mexico border and the administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Harris’ advisers hope the five-day trip to France will change his reputation in foreign affairs.
While Harris’s visit isn’t attracting the kind of attention a president would receive, it has attracted some interest among the French, who celebrated Barack Obama even before he became America’s first black president when he visited as a senator in 2008. .
Harris featured prominently in news accounts later Wednesday evening the meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, and was shown multiple times on live television Thursday, when he chatted amicably with Macron during the national commemoration of Armistice Day under the Arc de Triomphe.
Alexis Buisson, a New York-based French journalist writing a biography of Harris, said that in France, people who follow politics, as well as activists who are pushing for the country to tackle race more openly, they followed Harris’ career.
“Suddenly, you have this political figure like Kamala Harris coming out of nowhere for the French …. He’s not an old white man,” Buisson said.
“It represents a kind of new America that, frankly, the French prefer to Trump’s America,” he added.
In addition to Buisson’s biography, at least one French documentary on Harris is in the works.
The vice president has personal ties to France and the French language. She spent her teenage years in Quebec, Canada, including time in a French language school. Although she speaks some French, she has stuck to English in her public appearances here.
During her visit Tuesday at the Pasteur Institute, she spoke frequently about her mother, a cancer researcher who worked there decades ago. At least one of the researchers Harris met had searched his mother’s old documents and complimented them on their early insights.
“The discoveries that [my mother] he was responsible in the 1980s was the basis for many great jobs, ”Harris said.
Part of the interest in Harris also stems from the particular moment in Europe – when liberals grapple with right-wing populism and reexamine their countries’ relationship to race and racism.
Racist language “has become normal and people are saying it out loud,” said Rebecca Amsellem, who runs a feminist media company in Paris, of the change in tone.
When the Americans protested the murder of George Floyd by the police last year, the French followed suit with a mass movement linked to Adama Traoré, a young black man who died in police custody in a suburb of Paris.
The population of France is estimated to be between 4% and 5% black, but the country refuses to keep official race statistics – one of many practices that show the difference in how the breed is portrayed and constructed here. compared to the United States The French tradition, born of the Enlightenment, sees the notion of citizenship as excluding other identities.
In another sign of affinity with black Americans, the French will bury Josephine Baker next month in the Pantheon, an 18th-century monument in central Paris. Baker, an American-born entertainer who moved to France in the 1930s and died in 1975, was active in the French Resistance during World War II and later in the US civil rights movement.
Part of a group of artists and intellectuals who came to France in the 20th century seeking refuge from racism, Baker will be the first black woman to be buried at the Pantheon, an honor given to around 80 people, including only five other women. . She is now buried in Munich.
The event will be a source of pride for many French people, although people tend to remain uncomfortable on the subject of race and the country’s history of the slave trade, said Christiane Taubira, the first black woman to serve as minister of justice. French.
“Until they’re confronted with the color issue, they don’t think about it,” he said.
That is why Taubira considers the symbolism of Harris’ visit significant.
“It’s very important for whites who are prejudiced,” he said. “It is very important for them to see – to observe such a woman with this high level of responsibility.”