February 26, 2008
The rise of Barack Obama to the forefront of the race for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination is holding a mirror to France as its citizens prepare to vote next month in 36,781 municipal elections. Moussa Deme laughs out loud at the idea that the French would elect someone like Obama, 46, to any political office.
“In France? Never,” Deme, a 22-year-old Senegalese-born student, said on the way home from his job at a restaurant in Paris. “In France, it is impossible for a black man even to be mayor. They think it is enough that we are on their football team.”
While France has Europe’s biggest population of sub-Saharan and North African immigrants and their descendants, it doesn’t have any black or Arab mayors currently in office, according to Adil Jazouli, a sociologist who is an adviser to a government committee on urban affairs. There are also no members of the National Assembly from France’s first- or second-generation immigrant population, he added.
“The French political system is archaic,” Jazouli said. “In business, sports, music, entertainment, you find diversity in France. Not in politics.”
Holding to the “republican” principle, France makes no distinction among its citizens by race, religion or ethnic origin. Still, minority representation in its political sphere remains a distant dream.
“Sadly, France is not even close,” said Chris Simakala, a 32-year-old black Frenchman who teaches economics. “Not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow.”
Granted, France’s experience with non-European settlers is relatively recent. In the past 200 years, it has taken in more immigrants than any other European country, according to a study by the University of Sunderland in Britain. While those in the 19th century came from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, most post-1950s immigrants have been black or Arab and came from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia or sub-Saharan Africa.
The country did have a black mayor in 1989: Kofi Yamgnane, of Togolese origin, was elected in the small, practically all-white village of St. Coulitz in Brittany.
In Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful presidential campaign, he called for stricter criteria for immigrants as well as “positive discrimination” for disadvantaged citizens (an idea called “affirmative action” in the United States). Sarkozy has awarded several high-profile jobs in his administration to people of Arab or African descent, including Rachida Dati, minister of justice, whose parents were born in North Africa.
Dati, 42, is now the candidate from Sarkozy’s party, the conservative Union for a Popular Movement, for mayor of the Seventh Arrondissement of Paris. Other minority candidates vying in the municipal elections include Nordine Nachite, a member of Sarkozy’s party of Moroccan descent who is running for mayor of Creil, a low-income town northeast of Paris.
Still, France has a lot more work to do to politically integrate its immigrants, said Natalie Sombie, a 30-year-old grade-school teacher who is French and of Caribbean origin. It will be while before the country accepts a black man running for president, she says.
“Until France reconsiders its history with its colonies, it won’t be able to deal with its immigrants,” she says. “We know this. We live it daily.”
Obama’s personal history – the son of a white mother and an African father, his four childhood years in Indonesia and his early career as a community organizer in Chicago – has impressed many people in France.
His candidacy holds out hope for France’s minorities, says Christine Ockrent, host of a popular French TV talk show and author of a book on Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“The fact that he is of mixed blood brings out the idea of reconciliation,” she says. “For all sorts of reasons, the U.S. is more advanced than France in terms of race relations. Remember, until eight or nine months ago, we had an all-white government. France is in no way an example.”
Place CarrâˆšÂ©e, an atrium at the center of Les Halles, an underground shopping mall, offers a cross-section of a fast-changing France, where 1 out of every 10 inhabitants is of Arab or African descent.
That ratio is even higher at this junction of two suburban rail lines and the Paris subway system. About 800,000 people pass through the transport hub each day, many of them from the capital’s outlying suburbs, where the city’s minority populations are concentrated.
Most of the commuters on a recent weekday were on their way to or from their jobs or university classes. For some, the United States seems a distant, different place; still, they’ve been following the presidential contest closely.
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Celestine Bohlen – Bloomberg News