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.

Francois Mori

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.

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.

After the 2005 minority riots in the French suburbs, new lobbying groups were created, along with websites and more talk. President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed three Muslim females to his cabinet after being elected in 2007, a major signal of change. The Netherlands has begun to witness more elected minorities: In October, the city of Rotterdam elected Moroccan Amed Aboutaled as mayor. In Germany, Cem Ozdemir, of Turkish origin, is set to become co-head of the Green Party.

But initiatives after the French riots have cooled. On Nov. 5, on the heels of the Obama election, the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN), led by Patrick Lozès, went to the Elysée Palace to give President Sarkozy a message of "the urgent claim for equality of the blacks in France."

In Germany, where some 250,000 people attended an Obama speech July 15, the Obama symbol is salient. After years of denying participation to non-Germans, the Merkel government in 2005 officially acknowledged Germany as a country of immigration.

"People have discovered the enormous social and economic potential of migrants, and a lot has been done in the last couple of years," says Nihat Sorgec of Bildungswerk, which trains young Turks in the Kreuzberg neighborhood in Berlin.

"Germany has finally opened itself, and Obama's victory will provide a huge motivation boost for society to open itself even more," he adds.

Turkish-born Aygü Keser, a political consultant in Berlin, agrees. "Obama's victory is an incredible victory for migrants, for them to see what can be achieved, but more important, it's a signal to Germans, to the majority, that the country has to be more open to migrants and what they can bring."

As in France, German minorities are not making a racial case for participation – but one of capability. Agyül Özkan of Hamburg, a woman who made history this year by becoming the first politician of Turkish origin elected as a conservative, says the Obama victory can move German perceptions past racial politics. "It shows, that what motivates us aren't race issues but rather what we can do," she says. Özkan, a corporate executive, says the German conservative CDU party had the most effective plan for her vision of economics, and saw past her Turkishness.

But in Frankfurt, a Turkish grocer, Abdel Zerouli, barely stops cutting meat at his deli, expressing skepticism about change. Although his father left Turkey more than 30 years ago, Mr. Zerouli still doesn't feel German and can't imagine a Turkish Obama in Berlin. "The Germans are too nationalistic," says Zerouli. "They want pure Germans – once a foreigner, always a foreigner.... Politicians from other European Union countries aren't foreigners, but for us, religion is a big problem: Germans see Islam as the enemy."

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