Obama's victory stirs Europe to confront race issue

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 11, 2008 

LONDON — For months before Barack Obama's election last week, his popularity ratings in Europe soared to levels never matched in America. Now that Obama is headed to the Oval Office as the first African-American president, his victory is prompting Europeans to confront some uncomfortable questions about race within their own countries.

In Britain, the head of the government's Equality and Human Rights Commission sparked a public debate for saying that a minority politician as "brilliant" as Obama would struggle to "break through the institutional stranglehold on power within the Labor Party."

"The problem is not the electorate, the problem is the machine," Trevor Phillips, who is black, told The Times of London. "It's institutional racism" that extends beyond a single political party, he said.

In France, meanwhile, the wife of President Nicolas Sarkozy has thrown her support behind a new campaign that seeks to wipe out racism and end the white stranglehold on France's elite political and social institutions. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a musician and former model, is backing a manifesto published over the weekend that is subtitled "Oui, nous pouvons!" (French for "Yes, we can!").

Obama's victory "highlights via a cruel contrast the shortcomings of the French Republic, and the distance that separates us from a country whose citizens knew how to go beyond the racial question and elect a man who happens to be black as president," the statement said.

The manifesto urged the adoption of U.S.-style affirmative-action programs to promote minorities in education and workplaces -- a radical departure for France, which does not even record race in its national census. The French manifesto was launched by Yazid Sabeg, a millionaire who is the son of Algerian immigrants, and is backed by many members of the French elite,

Community groups in Britain and France, which are home to some of Europe's most racially mixed cities, have long urged an increase in what is now a minuscule minority presence in politics. They have seized on Obama's victory as a means to energize minority communities.

About 8 percent of the British population is non-white, but only 15 of the 646 members of parliament — just 2 percent _are non-white. In France, the non-white population is estimated at 12 percent, but there is only one non-white member of the National Assembly. By comparison, there will be 75 non-whites out of 435 representatives in the new U.S. House of Representatives and five non-whites in the 100-member Senate.

Mark Lattimer, executive director of Minority Rights Group, an international non-profit, says "structural obstacles" partly account for the lack of advancement among minority politicians in Europe. These range from the way that party insiders pick candidates for national office, to the lack of official recognition of racial or ethnic minorities in France, to nationality laws in Germany that were traditionally based on descent (rather than place of birth, which has hindered immigrants from Turkey and elsewhere).

"You need more than role models" to elevate more minorities to the elite ranks of politics in Europe, according to Lattimer.

David Lammy, a black minister in Britain's Labor government, says he rejoices in Obama's message of hope. Lammy, who first met Obama at a Harvard alumni event several years ago and went to Wisconsin to observe his campaign last winter, says Britain can learn from Obama's success. For instance, he says a closed "political class," supported by a patronage system, discourages newcomers from getting involved in politics.

Yet racism has reared its head in the days since Obama was elected. A Polish legislator told his colleagues in parliament last week that Obama's victory meant "the end of the white man's civilization". A well-known Austrian journalist said on television that he "wouldn't want the Western world to be directed by a black man."

Italy's gaffe-prone prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said last week that Obama was "young, handsome and tanned," remarks that perplexed many Italians. But Berlusconi, who is perpetually tanned himself, later said it was meant as "a compliment."

In response, Bruni-Sarkozy, who was born in Italy, said, "I'm very glad to have become French."

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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