With Obama's victory, Europe's minorities sense new possibilities
A new discourse is emerging in France and Europe that urges a focus on ability – rather than on race or skin.
PARIS AND FRANKFURT
The election of Barack Obama may have revolutionized the world's view of America. But for Africans and Arabs in Europe, he is much more – a liberator figure whose success and social mobility will help them one day crack open the closed doors of European politics.Skip to next paragraph
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In Paris's black neighborhoods, in the barber shops, the African boutiques, the crowded bus stops, the groceries, President-elect Obama's election is felt deeply and personally – creating a sense that it is time to push for more.
"Obama has restored belief in the American dream," says Pap Ndiaye, who is with the School for the Advanced Study of the Social Sciences in Paris. "But his election also has a direct social effect in France, because the black youth think it is possible there [in the US] but not here.
"Obama puts the political system in France on the hot seat," he adds. "Structures that are closed are being looked at, and it is time for that."
Few Europeans believe it possible anytime soon for a minority to be elected to high office in their countries. The Obama example highlights a sharp contrast between the ideals and the reality of what a young African or Arab in Europe can hope for as a participant in politics.
Obama's rise created a new discourse focused on ability here – rather than on race or skin as a rationale for change.
In the majority-African Paris neighborhood of Chateau Rouge, Rigg Walker, a young Ghanaian, offers a view repeated often: "Whites think blacks can't do more, that we have a black mentality not as good as theirs. But give us opportunity – this is what Obama proves – and we can. What America now shows is that whites will vote for a black man for the highest office. Obama shows that capability is not about skin, but about the mentor, the teacher – and this is where we can grow."
Europe, especially France, has long been a refuge for immigrants, and Paris was a haven for American black intellectuals and artists. But this was a cultural, not political, freedom; its heyday existed before blacks and Arabs began to make up a growing population that is officially uncounted by the French, but is estimated at 10 to 15 percent of 63 million. Africans are in business, academics, the professions – but not politics. France has three minority members in a parliament of 911 seats – two senators and one member of the National Assembly.
A poll days ahead of the US election showed that 80 percent of the French would vote for a black presidential candidate, but only 47 percent thought one could be elected.
"The public is ready for a black president [of France]," says Fadela Amara, deputy minister of urban policy, one of the three new women Muslims in the Sarkozy Cabinet. "But the political parties are less ready."
"There's no grass-roots politics for Africans," says Mr. Ndiaye. "What's missing is a thick layer of minority politicians in small towns; local officials just don't encourage this. The data for participation remain extremely disappointing. There is no 'French Obama.' "
In Germany, the dynamics are different – German bloodlines have long marked criteria for political life, though Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government is pioneering change. Ten years ago, Germans with foreign backgrounds were absent from the political scene; today, 11 sit in the 612-set Bundestag.