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Inspired by Obama, European Minorities Take Action

An Obama effect is rippling across Europe.

In France, a pro-Barack Obama grassroots group created months ago is morphing into a campaign for political diversity. In Britain, a Black voter group says it is inundated with calls and attendance is soaring.

In Austria, a Rwandan-born activist has fired off letters to big parties urging them to field minority candidates. And in Germany, the staff of Turkish politician Cem Ozdemir started a Facebook group called “Yes we Cem” — a takeoff on Obama’s slogan “Yes we can.”

Obama’s victory is inspiring hopes and even planting the seeds of action for changing the overwhelming Whiteness of Europe’s political elite. But it’s unclear whether these efforts will pay off or merely fizzle. Although polls showed majorities in nearly every European country favored Obama over John McCain, many say Europe is far from voting for a leader from an ethnic minority itself.

Of course, the victory of the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from Kansas has brought hope to many parts of the developing world. But in places like Britain and France, which have long prided themselves on their democracies, it has also emphasized how far their governments are from reflecting racial diversity today.

Europe and the relatively young United States have vastly different histories when it comes to race.

The United States is a lot more diverse: Minorities now make up about a third of all Americans. By comparison, the Interior Ministry in Germany says “foreigners” made up about 8.2 percent of the population in 2006. And anti-discrimination groups estimate that Blacks and people of North African origin — mostly from former colonies — make up at least 10 percent of France. Neither country collects official statistics on race.

Yet only 10 lawmakers in Germany’s 613-seat lower house of parliament come from minority backgrounds. And in France, the lower house of parliament has just one Black lawmaker among 555 elected from the French mainland.

“The vote for Obama rings as a critique of politics in France as sclerotic, old and tired — and not just here,” said Faycal Douhane, a Socialist of Algerian heritage who leads an association of mayors in the Paris area. “It’s embarrassing for France.”

Obama’s victory was particularly resonant in France. A group formed in a cafe months ago as the Friends of Barack Obama in the southeastern city of Lyon is renaming itself “The Movement” to lobby political parties to select minority candidates. It also plans to write up and send a report to President Nicolas Sarkozy by year-end on France’s lack of political diversity.

Spokesperson Azedine Haffar said France’s stance that all of its citizens are simply French holds minorities back.

“There was a before Nov. 4, and an after Nov. 4,” he said. “And those who want to stay in the before, we can tell them: ‘No, it’s finished. This era is over.’”

Malek Boutih, who oversees social issues at France’s main opposition Socialist Party, said he plans to use a major party congress this week to deliver a message: “Let minorities join the political fight and gain responsibility.”

On Wednesday, France named a Cameroon native, Pierre N’Gahane, as regional leader of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region, although Justice Minister Rachida Dati denied the appointment was made because of mounting calls to end political racism. And the morning after Obama’s victory, the Representative Council of Black Associations called Sarkozy’s office for a meeting to press for more measures to prevent discrimination against companies.

Lawmaker Frederic Lefebvre was quoted last week in a newspaper proposing that parliament require TV stations to reflect France’s full color range. And first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was quoted Sunday expressing support for affirmative action-like policies.

However, Rama Yade, the Senegalese-born junior minister for human rights, warned in a string of TV and radio appearances following the Obama victory that momentum for change could quickly fade.

“Fantasizing will get us nowhere in France,” she said. “The movement risks petering out if action doesn’t follow.”

In France, some minorities could be preferable to others. A poll published last week in Journal du Dimanche found 80 percent of respondents would vote for a Black for president, 72 percent for a French person of Asian extraction — but only 58 percent for someone of North African origins.

In Britain, Simon Woolley, the founder and national coordinator of Operation Black Vote, said the phones have been ringing off the hook. The group has three meetings arranged for the end of November and December, and had to change venues because so many people were interested.

“We will ride the crest of a wave Obama has created,” Woolley said. “We’re using this moment to embarrass the political parties — asking why they haven’t done enough to address Black representation.”

In Britain’s Parliament, where there are 646 members in the House of Commons, 15 lawmakers are minorities — far short of the 60 needed for proportional representation, he said.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters last week that because her country is a democracy, “of course we can accommodate candidates with any historical roots.” However, she acknowledged there are very few such candidates, and that her party needs to catch up.

In some parts of Europe, the Obama effect is up against significant challenges. In Austria, Rwanda-born activist Alexis Neuberg wrote to the two main parties to pressure them to offer minority candidates.

“We’ve never had a single Black person in the ruling coalition in this country, and that’s a pity,” he said.

Austrian lawmakers have not responded. But Klaus Emmerich, a veteran commentator for Austrian state broadcaster ORF, set off a firestorm of criticism after Obama’s election by saying publicly he doesn’t think the president-elect is “civilized enough.” And far-right parties made significant gains in the most recent national elections.

Neuberg says his group is fighting on behalf of the 25,000 Africans and 200,000 Turks in the country of 8.3 million. Within hours of the Obama victory, “I got so many calls from everybody all over the place — and not only from Africans but from whites,” he said.

“They said, ‘Alexis, don’t lose hope, because what happened in America can also happen in Austria,'” Neuberg added. “We want to try to champion a new way.”


Associated Press Writers Uwe Gepp in Frankfurt, Germany; William J. Kole in Vienna, Austria; Marta Falconi in Rome; and David Stringer, Gregory Katz and Elle Moxley in London contributed to this report.


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