Taste Test: Obama Soda A Hit With French Teens
The election of Barack Obama has inspired one French entrepreneur to create a new soft drink. The maker of Obama Soda says he hopes his beverage, and its namesake, will inspire young people living in some of France's grimmest housing projects by giving them a little taste of the American dream.
La Courneuve is a working-class suburb only 5 miles from the center of Paris, but it seems a different world from the glittering City of Light. In the drab housing projects — or cites, as they are called here — rows of gray cinder block apartments dominate the landscape.
It is here that 31-year-old Jean-Jacques Attisso has decided to base his advertising business. Attisso grew up in a nearby housing project; like most young people here, his parents were immigrants from Africa. The energetic entrepreneur says one of the biggest problems in La Courneuve is the apathy and hopelessness among young people.
"There is like a gap between this area and Paris," says Attisso. "And for me, it's really important to be here and to try to give a positive message."
Attisso gives back to the community by mentoring young people in his spare time. He says President-elect Obama has inspired young people like nobody else. That, and the fact that one of his clients is a can manufacturer, gave him the idea to create Obama Soda.
The drink comes in a red and blue can featuring Obama's photo and the slogan "Yes We Can." It's the perfect tool to get young people to listen to his message, says Attisso — even if the success story is from another country.
"They know that Barack Obama is American, and here in France, the situation is a bit different," says Attisso. "But still, if someone is able to do that in the biggest country in the world, why not? It could happen in other countries."
On a recent afternoon, Attisso took his energy drink and his motivational message to the La Courneuve youth center.
After astonishing a few adolescents with his cans of Obama Soda, Attisso begins his spiel. He describes Obama as practically an orphan, a guy whose father left him and who was raised by his grandmother. But, Attisso says, Obama studied and kept going.
He tells the boys that they, too, could do anything they want if they work hard and set their minds to it.
Jean Marie Cyrelli, 19, says his father, like Obama's, was African. And he says young people in the French suburbs feel they have no future.
"People don't believe in France anymore," Cyrelli says. "They feel stuck out here in these ghettos in the suburbs, and the young people don't feel integrated with the rest of the country. It's an identity problem.
"They can't find their place in society, and they don't feel French," he says.
Unemployment in La Courneuve and other minority-populated suburban areas is nearly three times the national average. Residents say they face discrimination and exclusion.
And just three years ago, this area and others like it across the country exploded in violence. Young men of African and North African background burned cars and fought with police during nearly three weeks of nightly rioting.
In front of some small shops that include a halal butcher and a grocer advertising African specialties, Attisso stops some younger tweens on their way home from school. They all seem more optimistic than their older neighbors.
"I love Obama cola. This is the first time I've tasted it," says Muhammed Cherki, 11. Cherki says he's sure he could become president of France — but that he'd rather be a chef or the mayor of Hollywood.
When Attisso tells him that African-Americans couldn't even sit down in the front of a bus 50 years ago, Cherki replies that now Obama doesn't need the bus — he's got limousines.
Maria Tudjay, 14, and her friends say they love Obama Soda because it tastes like bubble gum, and that the can is pretty because it's in the colors of the French flag.
"And I'm very proud to drink it, because Obama is such a good example for black people," she says.
When asked if anyone would like to try a soda named for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the response was unanimous: a chorus of "Non."
"All Sarkozy wants to do is bring the cops here," one boy says. "We don't like him at all."
Despite Obama Soda's success among these young people, Attisso says the cans are not yet on supermarket shelves. For now, he wants to use the drink to convince young people that a French version of the American dream is also possible.
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