Obama’s victory confronts France with its own troubled status quo

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, Politics

During the US presidential election campaign, Doug Saunders noted in the Canadian Globe & Mail last month, “the big question in Europe had been whether Mr. Obama’s liberalism connected to the values of the social democrats and socially moderate conservatives who tend to govern Europe. Was he good enough to be a European?” It was, in at least one major aspect, the wrong question. When it comes to race, Saunders pointed out, the question is rather the other way around. Would European voters have been able to do what American voters did? Would they measure up to the way Americans overcame racial prejudice in electing Obama?

There are some 5 million blacks in France and the UK alone; some 12 million across Europe. Arguably more marginalised still are the Muslims of Western Europe; the immigrants and children and grandchildren of immigrants from Northern Africa, Turkey and Pakistan. There are 7-10 million of those in France, Germany and the UK alone, with another 5 million spread elsewhere through Western Europe. So how about it? Could there be a European Obama?

Rama Yade (Image used under CC license from Flickr user philippe leroyer)

Rama Yade (Image used under CC license from Flickr user philippe leroyer)

No way, said France’s only black minister, Rama Yade in an interview with the Telegraph, at least not in France. Her country “will never elect its own Barack Obama under the current ageing, white political elite,” she said, calling the prospect a “pipe dream”. And this is not some cynical lefty talking; Yade is the secretary of state for human rights and foreign affairs in a conservative government, which she joined as something of a protege of President Sarkozy.

“I’m 51 and I’m sure I won’t see any Barack Obama in France in the next generation,” Saunders was told by Azouz Begag, who  served as Minister for Equal Opportunities under Jacques Chirac.

“Obama puts the political system in France on the hot seat,” Pap Ndiaye of the School for the Advanced Study of the Social Sciences in Paris told the Christian Science Monitor. His election “has a direct social effect in France, because the black youth think it is possible there but not here.”

But it’s not just France: Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the British Equalities and Human Rights Commission, said Obama could never have become prime minister there either. He faulted “institutional racism,” pointing out that there are only 15 ethnic-minority MPs in Westminster – on a total of 646. (Oddly, he went out of his way to single out the Labour Party and “the trade unions”, “socialist societies” and “left intelligentsia” it is supposedly in hock with for blame, and praised the Tories as having done better. Oddly, because 12 of those 15 minority MPs are actually Labour MPs. Partisan rancour I suppose.)

However, it’s the French who should do the brunt of the soul-searching. It has the largest black and Muslim populations of the continent – as far as we can tell, anyway, since the French ban on ethnic and religious data collection makes pegging the numbers difficult. (Wikipedia records some 3-5 million blacks or “Afro-Europeans” and some 2-5 million Muslims in France – or around 6% each of the country’s population, not counting overseas territories.) And yet it has nothing like 15 minority MPs. Of the 577 deputies in parliament, only one is black and none are of Arab origin.

Worse: not one black mayor has been elected since 1989, when a mayor of Togolese origin was elected in a small village in Brittany, and until half  year ago, there was not a single mayor of non-European immigrant origins in office. As Begag added: “I keep saying that France, as far as issues of integration of minority ethnic groups is concerned, has a generation delay on what’s going on in the USA and even in the U.K.”

(Image used under CC license from Flickr user franck94)

Image used under CC license from Flickr user franck94

All of this is old news, of course, rehashed endlessly already after the 2005 riots, even if the actual numbers remain pretty stunning. It’s hardly just the marginalisation in the political arena either of course: the myriad problems of France’s minorities ranging from poverty, unemployment and discrimination to ghettoisation and subcultures of violence form a familiar litany.

Things are getting worse, too: the economic crisis is hitting the isolated immigrant suburbs hardest. Said Aziz Senni, who owns a minicab company: “People from the wealthy Neuilly suburb are less likely than the ones in Mantes or Clichy to lose jobs [..]. Suburban workers live on construction, small services and temporary jobs, and these are the first ones to go.” Youth unemployment in these suburbs is already at 40%; Mohammed El Rhazi, a worker at a mattress-making factory, called the crisis the “new plague”.

In this context, Obama’s election can be a source of hope, as the enthused reports had it after November 4. For “Africans and Arabs in Europe,” the CSM reported, Obama is “a liberator figure whose success and social mobility will help them one day crack open the closed doors of European politics”:

In Paris’s black neighborhoods, in the barber shops, the African boutiques, [..] President-elect Obama’s election is felt deeply and personally – creating a sense that it is time to push for more.

[..] Rigg Walker, a young Ghanaian, offers a view repeated often: “[G]ive us opportunity – this is what Obama proves – and we can. What America now shows is that whites will vote for a black man for the highest office.”

But I can just as easily see it turn into a source of frustration. While the Americans elect a black president, a French Maghrebin still can’t get a break. One of my pet theories, once upon a time elaborated in much more sophisticated fashion in a graduation thesis, is that people will mobilise around a collective identity or sense of resentment when they perceive their position to be deteriorating – or when they see an opportunity and are afraid they will be left out. When things are bad without relief, people tend to soldier on in suffering, but give them a glance at a window of opportunity which rouses hope but appears to be just out of reach for them, and a mad rush of agitation may follow unpredictable paths. If there’s enough resentment simmering, a long track record of urban unrest shows, it takes just one police shoot-out gone wrong for the shit to hit the fan.

Image used under CC license from Flickr user photographi.esc [4:3]And there’s plenty of resentment to go around. Sarkozy won plaudits at home and abroad for going where no Socialist had gone and steering not one, but three women of immigrant background to government posts. But in the suburbs little has changed. When Sarkozy was elected president a year and a half ago, he vowed a Marshall Plan for the suburbs; bolstered by the promise of state subsidies, 48 companies pledged to create 40,000 jobs by 2010. The counter seems to have stalled now at 11,800, a number eclipsed by the increase in the number of job seekers by 42,000 in August alone.

The one solution mentioned over and again is affirmative action – both when it comes to providing direly needed job opportunities in the most disadvantaged places and finally facilitating a proper representation of ethnic minorities among political decision-makers.

“I am for trying quotas, along not just ethnic but social lines,” said Rama Yade, “not because I’m wildly enthusiastic about it, but because everything we’ve tried up until now has not worked.” To be sure, her sharp rebuke to the suggestion that she benefited, in a way, from affirmative action herself reveals the ambivalences involved. But whether the solution is formulated in terms of quota, affirmative action or community-specific career assistance, on the basis of race or class, it leaves little doubt about one thing, and that’s where the failure lies it seeks to redress. In short, the French Republican model has failed.

This is how Anne-Laure Piganeau de Chammard, a French civil servant and student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, put it in an op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor last week:

The French political system has become archaic. Holding to the ideal of “egalitarianism,” the country prides itself on making no distinction of ethnic background or race. Ethnic statistics and affirmative action are banned, because France is attempting to be a color-blind nation that treats all French in the same way. And politicians across the political spectrum are opposed to special treatment for minorities, be it through quotas or affirmative action. [But] France’s vaunted egalitarianism will remain a theoretical ideal if the country doesn’t take efficient measures to promote minorities.

“The victory of Obama is holding a mirror to France,” she wrote; “the traditional French model of integration is a political failure”. Even Yade agrees: the “republican model worked up to a certain point, but today we have to admit that this system has reached its limits”. Piganeau de Chammard efficiently summarizes the plan of action:

The “Obama effect” has created a wind of change. It should be harnessed to call for concrete action. French minorities need the affirmative action their American counterparts benefited from. Opening up its elite education system to minorities is an especially critical step. The French system prides itself on being a “meritocracy” because it offers free education for all, but by being based on color-blind national competitive exams, it fails to help disadvantaged minorities to rise up.

For affirmative action to be possible and effective, data collection on ethnic backgrounds should be allowed, as is the case in the United States. Without this data, little can be done to promote diversity. This will be politically difficult, but since Obama’s victory, dozens of French black advocacy groups and antiracism associations are rising and asking for that change.

Fadela Amara (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Qui©he)

Fadela Amara (used under CC license from Flickr user Qui©he)

If there is any place where such crowbars are needed to change the status quo, it’s in the corridors of political power. The system, not the public, is stopping a French Obama from getting to the top, says Yade, with a swipe at the way her political peers have embraced Obama: “The enthusiasm they express toward this far-away American [..] they don’t have it for the minorities in France.” Her Cabinet colleague Fadela Amara chimed in: “The public is ready for a black president [..]. But the political parties are less ready.”

To some extent that’s true, as the Telegraph comments: “In a recent poll, 80 per cent of French said they could vote for a black presidential candidate”. But much like in my home country, the Netherlands, it’s no longer blacks who are primarily in the crosshairs of xenophobes. The same poll showed only 58% would vote for a north African one.

Either way, though, the public seems ahead of the system. The inflated, hierarchical and byzantine body politic of the French Republic values little more than being from the right background and the right schools – and having patiently endured one’s way through a career of navigating the innumerable political “currents” within the two dominant parties.

Rama Yade (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Qui©he)

Rama Yade (used under CC license from Flickr user Qui©he)

Sarkozy himself, the son of an immigrant, is actually the exception, having been long regarded with suspicion as an insufficiently sophisticated outsider by Gaullist leaders like Chirac and De Villepin, and it is perhaps not surprising that it was he who broke new ground appointing Yade and Amara to Cabinet posts. But resistance to change is widespread. Yade, again: “Obama’s speechwriter is 25 years old: but in France at 30 you’re not credible.” Locally it’s the same story of closed systems and suspicion of outsiders: “What’s missing is a thick layer of minority politicians in small towns; local officials just don’t encourage this,” said Pap Ndiaye.

This institutional immobility is arguably the other face of the exclusion that expresses itself in repressive immigration and integration policies, all focused on tough talk and law and order rhetoric. In France, the mix of exclusion is further reinforced by a strict adhesion to Republican traditions separating Church and state that to many in the country’s more pragmatical neighbours seems borderline fetishist. When teachers can be fired for wearing a headscarf, it is impossible to imagine that the police, for example, would adapt its uniforms to accomodate Sikh turbans like the British police did. The message as it will arguably be interpreted in the suburbs: you don’t belong.

Speaking from Canada, Saunders was snide but to the point:

Europeans have developed an unhealthy obsession with “integration” [..]. The whole concept is divisive: It ensures that they will be different and isolated people until they meet some unknown standard [..]. While they were busy fussing about “integration,” those inventive Yanks had come up with a better product – inclusion.


1 Comment

  1. Silverion  •  Jan 11, 2009 @8:16 am

    One should not compare apples with oranges: blacks in the US have been there for centuries; immigration into Europe was negligible before the world wars. In Europe second or third generation immigrants that have a political mandate are not unusual. I presume that was unusual for sons or grandsons of slaves.

    This recent immigration also means that the migrant communities still cling to their previous homeland. Therefore, what happens in Palestine is more important to them than the politics of their new nation.

    Furthermore, Obama is of mixed heritage, so he did have access to the traditional powerbrokers via his white parent: in that sense, he’s more adopted than immigrated.

    As for inclusion: Americans have always been able to move on, pack their bags and leave if something didn’t work out. But now the Wild West is already settled, and gas prices are bound to rise. I hope they can keep to manage conflicts this way, but that’s not guaranteed.

2 Trackbacks