Not that America probably cares, said Simon Jenkins in Britain’s The Times, but here in Europe we’re watching the U.S. presidential contest more closely than usual. The foreign adventurism of George W. Bush has left the world in no doubt that America’s president is in a sense president of all of us, a realization that has given rise to a “bitter sense of disenfranchisement.” But the other reason we’re fascinated with the race has the potential to reverse, if not entirely wash away, those ugly feelings: the candidacy of Barack Obama. The fact that a black man has even come this close to being elected president of the United States has already given pause to those who always dismissed the USA as a nation of illiterate, gun-toting racists. Were Obama actually to win the White House, it would “transform, indeed electrify America’s image worldwide,” instantly and for the better.

Here in France, it’s already happening, said François Durpaire in the Paris Libération. Two short years ago the ghetto suburbs of French cities were in flames, as immigrant youths vented their frustration and hopelessness through rioting. Today, in Obama, those disaffected youths are finding “something to smile about.” Obama’s spectacular rise from a single-parent home and a mixed-race background is a story “whose horizons extend beyond national borders” and that has the power to inspire pride and hope even in the slums of another continent. Think about that. Much has been written about what an Obama presidency could do for race relations in the U.S., but only now are people starting to realize that a win by Obama in November could even improve race relations here in Europe.

That’s an uncomfortable thought, said Thomas Klau in Germany’s Financial Times Deutschland. For barbarous, immature America to elect a black president before any European nation did so would force us “to ask ourselves questions we have never asked before.” We Germans pride ourselves on our social tolerance and progressive thinking, but come election time we take it for granted that all major candidates will be white-skinned. The day Barack Obama finally wraps up the Democratic nomination, “cracks will start to appear” in the smugness of Europe’s self-image. Should the day ever come that a black president moves in to the White House, Europe’s sense of “collective innocence” will “shatter completely,” and a painful soul-searching will begin.

Yes, but does it have to be Barack Obama? said Alexandre Adler in France’s Le Figaro. Two other “outstanding African-Americans”—Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice—would make for a far more reliable military ally for Europe than Obama, and a far more willing trading partner. Obama’s skin color may have made him a hero to the immigrants and ethnic minorities of Europe. But if the protectionist, isolationist foreign policies of a President Obama keep them mired in poverty and hopelessness, they may come to wish America’s first black president had been someone else.