MONTFERMEIL, France — Where is Europe’s Barack Obama?
Not only were droves of Europeans voting with their hearts for the U.S. presidential candidate on Tuesday. Many also found themselves asking when France, Germany or Britain will get a chance to cast a ballot for a leader from their own burgeoning “visible minorities.”
The answer? Not any time soon.
Dreams clash head-on with reality in the grimy ghettoes and sophisticated cities of Europe. There is little sense that “our Obama” is about to bound over the well-guarded — and largely white — porticos of power.
“Obama is rather far away. It’s a bit of a fiction here, a bit of a dream,” said Kadar Mkalache, tending a stand at the weekly market in Les Bosquets, a tough housing project in Montfermeil northeast of Paris. Born in France 48 years ago of Algerian descent, Mkalache said he’s a French citizen who doesn’t feel French — “not at all.”
Still, Mkalache, who has an 18-year-old son, said Obama “could bring a ray of hope.”
Discrimination is only one reason that citizens of immigrant origin are unlikely to soon produce a leader able to crack the system. Another is that the Old World is young when it comes to its minorities of color.
In Spain, a magnet for migrants from north and sub-Saharan Africa, most visible minorities are still in their first generation. Elsewhere, they mainly go back three generations at most.
The changing face of some other European countries, like Britain or France, often reflects their colonial past — their immigrants come from countries they once ruled, and color barriers remain formidable.
In Britain, minorities — at least 8 percent of the population — hold only 15 of 646 parliamentary seats. However, a black, Baroness Scotland, holds the post of attorney general — the highest-ranking minority in British government.
In France, where there are an estimated 5 million Muslims, mainly from North Africa, and millions more blacks, there is only one black lawmaker in the 577-seat National Assembly, who was born in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The upper house has four senators with roots in North Africa.
Minorities in Germany’s Bundestag hold 10 of 612 seats, although a politician of Turkish origin, Cem Ozdemir, is about to become the first to take the helm of a political party, co-leading the Green Party.
“Obama hasn’t happened overnight,” said Danny Sriskandarajah of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Britain. “It took generations of minority activism in the U.S. to create this space and develop that sort of political acumen … which is largely absent from Europe.”
In the United States, racial tensions still fester but much of the anger was worked out in the long civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. Minority groups are part of the political mainstream with a voice that cannot be ignored.
With Obama, Sriskandarajah said, “We are seeing, I think, in America the maturity of minority politics.”
“There’s no denying that Obama is a sort of pinup boy for the immigrant dream all over the world,” he said.
“Obama-mania” has swept countries like Germany, Britain and France. But the minorities remain trapped in political infancy.
In France, the mother country of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” discrimination against visible minorities is often blatant.
A United Nations independent expert, Gay J. McDougall, concluded in a statement from the U.N. media office after a visit to France a year ago that it was “widespread, entrenched and institutionalized,” complicating any leap over the race barrier.
Despair among immigrants blamed on discrimination planted the seeds for riots three years ago in places like Montfermeil. Yet France is among European nations that have successfully integrated its white immigrants. Example: President Nicolas Sarkozy’s father was born in Hungary.
“Such a path is unimaginable for a black in France,” said Patrick Lozes, born in the West African nation of Benin and head of the Representative Council of Black Associations.
After taking office last year, Sarkozy appointed three women from France’s visible minorities as ministers — Rama Yade, junior minister for foreign affairs and human rights, born in Dakar, Senegal, and two who maintain dual citizenship, Urban Minister Fadal Amara, of Algerian origin, and Justice Minister Rachida Dati, of Moroccan origin.
But progress appears to have stopped there.
Lozes contends the crux of the problem lies in France’s refusal to carry out a head count of its ethnic minorities, on the grounds that in an ideal melting pot, everyone comes out French and nothing else.
“We say there are no figures, so there is no problem. The hypocrisy lies there,” said Lozes.
Experts say the blockage is at least in part within the political system itself.
Obama “is what we are not capable of producing,” said sociologist Eric Keslassy, who studies discrimination in French society.
The problem lies less within the electorate than within the political parties, “an ultra-competitive world.”
“The posts are well guarded and passed between people who belong to the same circle,” he said.
Citizens of immigrant origin in poor projects like Montfermeil appear caught in a vicious circle in which the clubby political system leads to voter apathy — further eroding political clout.
“They know the French political system only too well to have any hope” for a French Obama, Keslassy said.
Other European countries, too, appear a long way from that day.
However, Sriskandarajah predicts that Britain, at least, will have its own prime minister of color “within the next couple of decades” — the time it takes to “grease the wheels of their party machine.”
Yade, the French government minister, recalled in an interview with the daily Le Parisien that in her youth the only black she saw on television was Michel Leeb, a popular white comedian who imitates blacks.
Obama “is the incarnation of the American dream,” the French black leader Lozes said. “Here, we will ask the question: ‘Where is the French dream?’”
AP bureaus in Europe contributed to this report.
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