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.

Robert Marquand/The Christian Science Monitor
Candidate: Claire Edey is running for a seat in the European Parliament from Paris in June.

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

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?'

France's Constitution prohibits politicians from campaigning on "social factors," including ethnicity. This means they don't campaign as the son or daughter of Greek immigrants, or talk up their gender, or officially target minority populations in campaigns. As Edey puts it, "I don't deserve a seat just because my father happens to be African."

Despite laws intended to transcend the notion of "multiculturalism" (a bugaboo word here), ethnicity and race play an undeniable role in French politics and culture.

Esther Benbassa, a Jewish historian at the Sorbonne, insists that minorities feel excluded and lack a "sense of belonging." Speaking to the unresolved question of "who is French?" she says, "France is not what it believes it is. Its identity was reconstructed constantly with each wave of immigration."

French scholar Gerard Noiriel would agree. In the 1980s, he argued that 1 in 3 French have a foreigner in their immediate family if one traces back three generations.

Sarkozy was elected two years ago partly by playing to rising voter worry over immigrant populations seen as eroding a traditional sense of France. Yet polls after the US election in November indicate the French public is ready to vote for a French Obama, should one arise.

Structural barriers

The chief obstacle to this professed readiness is laid at the door of French political parties, whose rules and ingrained habits are not minority-friendly. At the seminar where Finney spoke, sponsored by the French-American Foundation (including both GOP and Democratic Party officials), French minorities agreed that parties are a main obstruction.

Ahmed Badri, who runs a Paris minority nongovernmental organization, says the system is a closed circle: Young hopefuls have trouble fundraising because backing by seniors in the party is required – but such backing requires that one earn "trust" through contacts developed over years.

"Even if you are excellent, you can't move," Mr. Badri says. "You need a background to start fundraising. People must know you over a long period of time."

Parties are also chockablock with talent, with people in their 40s and 50s still waiting for their chance. The logjam is compounded by traditions of multiple office holding. Members of parliament often serve concurrently as mayors, local and regional representatives, and senior party officials – vacuuming up positions that could be held by others. A 1998 study showed that of 577 National Assembly members, 322 are also mayors. Some members also sit on various district and regional councils. Only 47 hold one job.

"The baby boomers are highly talented and there are hundreds of them for a few seats," Edey says. "They want to keep working, and I understand that. In that sense, the issue is more sociological than racial. Having said that, it is also racial."

Racism spans the political spectrum

While parties on the French right are considered more openly unwelcoming to minorities, racist attitudes are also found within the French left. The case of Kheira Drissi makes the point: A woman of Arab background from a working-class family, Ms. Drissi ran for parliament on the Socialist ticket in 2007 from Haute-Marne, east of Paris. But the local party chief, Eric Loislet, hoping to run himself, openly undercut her candidacy. When a Socialist member of parliament from a Paris district, Bariza Khiari, protested in an e-mail to Mr. Loislet, he replied calling Ms. Khiari a member of the "beur-geoisie" – (beur, slang for Arab) – who is on the "tajine left" (tajine, a North African dish). Party officials did not discipline him, saying the e-mail was private.

Drissi, who was at the French Am­erican Society forum, told the Mon­itor that parties have a "long way to go" before attitudes shift. "I would like to be elected because of what I can do for the people," she says. "My background shouldn't matter." r

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