PARIS — Armed with messages of inclusiveness, Michelle Obama told a packed arena in the French capital Tuesday evening not to smother the feistiness of young women.
“Society is constantly trying to quiet the girl,” she told a rapt audience of around 20,000 people, speaking during the Kering-sponsored French leg of her book promotion tour, for her memoir “Becoming.”
Over nearly two hours, fielding questions from CNN journalist Isha Sesay, the former first lady covered a range of topics, from her modest upbringing in Chicago to the stress of life in the public spotlight. She offered her personal account of living in the White House, from the excitement of opening it up to a broader public to shooing her girls and their guests out through a back elevator after their last slumber party there, just before the arrival of the Trumps. Holding the audience’s attention to the end, the question that continues to dog Obama was saved for last: Why won’t she run for president?
Sponsoring the Obama event in Paris, Kering chairman and chief executive officer François-Henri Pinault, in a statement, referred to the move as “an illustration of the core values and beliefs we share in common.”
The luxury group is known for pushing women’s issues, both within the ranks of its executives — gaining recognition for high female board representation in Europe — as well as outside the company, through its foundation. Through its Women in Motion program, for example, Kering has hosted frank conversations with figures in cinema, often on controversial subjects.
Before taking to the stage, Obama met privately with Kering managing director Jean-François Palus and sustainability officer Marie-Claire Daveu, along with 10 of the 350 young women from underprivileged backgrounds invited by the company to hear Obama speak.
“When girls show up with a flame — you know, they have that ‘thing’ in them — sometimes people are afraid of that in girls and they try to dampen it, some people try to snuff it completely out. And if it doesn’t happen in your house, it happens in society,” said Obama, sharing her experience growing up with supportive parents.
“My parents instead wanted to keep that flame lit, they knew they had to help me balance it, because I would be a girl, a woman out in the world and they knew what was waiting, but they didn’t douse that flame and that’s what I think we have to remember because you know, girls come to this world, they’re competitors.”
Speaking through applause, she added: “They want to win, too, they don’t just want to be loving mothers and wives, they want to kick a ball, they want to throw a punch, they want to have an argument,” she said. “We have to make room for that spirit in girls in the same way that we make room for that spirit in our boys.”
When it came to her own daughters, Obama made sure they stuck to their school routine while living in the White house.
“If they had school, I don’t care if Jesus Christ was coming, they were going to school that day. It was like, get up, go to school, you are not the president, so you are not needed here, so go and do your homework and be normal and look away,” she said.
Her mother’s presence helped keep the family down-to-earth, she added.
“She was a grounding force for all of us…because Grandma was not impressed, by any of it, ever!”
As for running for president herself, Obama said she thought she had a better chance of working with people outside of politics.
“Politics is divisive right now and the minute you become an R or a D, you cancel out the impact that you can have on half of society. I think more people will listen to me, will look to me, will work with me on things that are important to all of us with me not being in politics,” she said.
Adding to her lists of reasons, she noted the challenges of life as a first family, which she also described as living in a bubble, somewhat disconnected from the real world.
“We need leaders who are more connected and young and in tune with the day-to-day issues and challenges…I want to move out of this seat to make room for the next generation and we can’t do that if we’re holding on,” she said, while pledging to help the Barack and Michelle Obamas of the future.
“There’s a lot of talent out there, you guys, and we don’t need to look at the same leaders doing things over and over again,” she said.
Making the case for sharing experiences, Obama said it could help stem the spread of hate.
“Understand and appreciate the power of your journey. Then embrace it with all the pluses and minuses, there’s nothing, there’s no one way to be wrong and then, once you get comfortable with your story, please share it. Share that, because it’s harder to hate up close…understanding one another’s context, it’s harder to turn people into ‘other.’”