Obama sparks debate: Would Europe elect a black leader?

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 24, 2008 

LONDON — Not so long ago, David Lammy seemed destined to become Britain's first black prime minister.

He has much in common with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and counts him as a friend. Both are sons of immigrants, raised by single mothers, and both are interested in social justice issues. Both attended Harvard Law; they first met at an alumni gathering in 2005.

Able and articulate, Lammy "shot through the bottom ranks of government, hit the middle ranks of government and stayed there ever since," said Lester Holloway, the editor of New Nation, the leading black newspaper in Britain. Now in his mid-30s, Lammy is currently Skills Minister, a relatively minor cabinet position.

Obama's current tour — he landed in Berlin Thursday and was travelling to Paris and London — has provoked an intense debate among members of Western Europe's racial and ethnic minorities: What are the chances of a minority politician rising to the top in their countries any time soon?

At the moment, the prospects look daunting.

In Britain's House of Commons, only 15 of 646 members are non-white, although minorities make up about 8 percent of the country's population.

In France, there's only one minority deputy among the 555 members of the National Assembly who represent mainland France, although perhaps one in five citizens is of minority descent. Two members of the 305-seat Senate hail from North Africa, although no senators are black, and President Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed three minority women to his Cabinet.

Neither Britain nor France has significant affirmative action programs, nor is there a sizeable black middle class, as in the United States. The French, for whom national identity is paramount, don't count race in their census.

European political systems also function differently than the American-style primaries. In Europe, tight circles of party insiders, who often attend the same elite schools, choose the national candidates. Critics say that makes it harder for outsiders, and minorities, to break in.

As a black boy living in West Africa, Patrick Lozes heard stories of his father's days as a member of the French Senate and saw his own future in politics.

But after serving in one of France's national parties and running unsuccessfully for the National Assembly, Lozes, 43, got a reality check.

"We pretend to be a color-blind society," he said, but in terms of minorities exerting political power, "the situation has worsened" since his father's day. He now runs CRAN, a nonprofit group in Paris dedicated to social and political issues for blacks.

In France, the three women minority members of Sarkozy's cabinet — Rachida Dati, Fadela Amara and Rama Yade — are worth watching. But they're junior ministers, not full ministers.

"I think because of Obama a lot of people feel it's more possible now here because they didn't expect it in America," said Zachary Miller, a black man who hails from Ohio, lives in Paris and is vice chairman of Democrats Abroad in France and an Obama supporter. At the same time, Miller said, "the conclusion is certain things would have to change. No one's really very optimistic that will happen anytime soon."

In England, Holloway said, debate is under way about whether to have black short lists for specific seats in Parliament, as has been done to help women rise in British politics.

"My personal view is I don't think there's that optimism in the UK," Holloway said. "We've seen people talked up, but I don't think personally we've got a political system that would allow an Obama to come up," Holloway said.

"Everybody's comparing themselves to Obama around here. People can compare themselves to Barack Obama, but I don't think it will happen without radical change in the UK, and I've never really picked up the feeling that it's possible."

Lozes said he hopes that Obama's visit will shine a light on the limits on minorities in his own country. "He represents the American dream." While he's in Paris, "he could ask where the French dream is."

(McClatchy special correspondent Sell reported from London. Talev reported from Berlin.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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