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A French Obama? Not likely.

President Obama's election is stirring the political hopes of minorities – like Claire Edey – in Europe's largest immigrant nation, but steep barriers remain.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2009

Candidate: Claire Edey is running for a seat in the European Parliament from Paris in June.

Robert Marquand/The Christian Science Monitor



Claire Edey won't deny it. She was inspired by Barack Obama.

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In June, she will make her first political run in Europe's parliamentary elections. She holds a doctoral degree, is a foot soldier in the opposition Socialist Party, knows Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe, and has some pluck, always useful in politics.

But Ms. Edey, whose father is French African and mother is white French, says the US election outcome gave her courage: "Without Obama, I'm honestly not sure I would run. I thought about it in December and January. I realized that if I don't run, no one will ask me to."

That insight was echoed recently by Karen Finney, a Democrat Party official visiting Paris following Mr. Obama's European visit. Ms. Finney challenged 60 young French minority hopefuls, saying, "If you don't run, who will?"

"This made a great deal of sense," Edey says. "It was something I had felt."

Obama's election had a galvanizing effect in Europe, particularly among French minorities – though it is proving bittersweet. A black in the White House only makes it more obvious how few minority politicians serve in Europe's largest immigrant nation. But it also raises deeper questions over patronage, racism, and parties logjammed with a generation of whites.

France has a proud secular tradition based on the concept of "citizen" that requires ethnic neutrality in public affairs. But of 860 seats in the Assembly and Senate, only seven are held by minorities (excluding overseas territories).

Talented French hopefuls don't ask if a French Obama is imminent. They are fairly certain this isn't soon possible. As one French African minority political strategist put it, "Yes, you can. Here, we can't."

The question is whether any serious foothold is possible. "There is no significant group of minority politicians in France, no critical mass which [can] produce a French Obama," says Pap Ndiaye at the School for the Advanced Study of Social Science in Paris. "Minority politicians need to be elected at the grass-roots level so they can voice specific concerns."

The issue runs deeper here than mere political access. It's a complicated question – rooted in the colonial past – over who and what is French. And it's being raised at a time when French African and Arab populations, many of them Muslim, are rising in the suburbs and housing projects, yet remain largely invisible in office or political decisionmaking roles.

Officials know the issue is combustible. President Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in 2007, appointed a highly visible set of female ministers, with roots in Senegal, Algeria, and Morocco. The president also appointed a well-known businessman of Arab extraction, Yazid Sabeg, to come up with recommendations on diversity. Mr. Sabeg's report, expected to be released shortly, is the subject of intense speculation – and fights on both the right and left – since it will likely raise France's sacred and constitutional stricture on identifying citizens based on ethnic or racial background, and may move toward American-style "affirmative action" ideas.

'Who is French?'