Could it Happen Here? Where's Europe's Obama?

Europe's euphoria at Barack Obama's election has given way to a worm of self-doubt. America may now have its first-ever black president, but which European nation could elect a leader from one of its own ethnic minorities?
Von Jess Smee

On Wednesday morning, news of America's historic election was gobbled up by an Obama-besotted Europe. But introspection has set in just as quickly, as the Old World has to admit that its own Obama figure might take some time to emerge.

"In Europe there is still a long way to go," said Cem Özdemir, who is about to make history in Germany as the first politician of Turkish descent to take the reins of a political party (he'll be co-leader of the Greens ). "The message is that it's time to move on in Europe. We have to give up seeing every political figure from an ethnic minority as an ambassador of the country of his forefathers," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Özdemir made waves in 1994 when he became the first Turkish-descended German to enter the nation's parliament at the age of 28. He said Europe will need a mindset overhaul if ethnic minorities can climb any further up the political ladder. "Obama's victory shows that we should stop categorizing people in little boxes, and look at the broader picture. Obama is an American and he is as black as he is white. I am a German with a Turkish background and at the same time I am as Swabian as I am European."

Just under under a fifth of Germany's residents are of foreign or partially foreign descent. This statistic is not echoed in the political arena. Right now ethnic minorities occupy just 10 of 612 seats in the Bundestag. A similar pattern of skewed representation is evident across Europe -- with high-profile exceptions like Moroccan-born Ahmed Aboutaleb, who was recently picked to become the next mayor of Rotterdam, one of Holland's biggest cities.

Evidence of post-Obama soul-searching was particularly strong in France, home to one of Europe's biggest black communities and an Arab-Muslim minority of about 5 million people. "This is the fall of the Berlin Wall times 10," Rama Yade, junior minister for human rights and France's only black government member, said in a radio interview. "America is a New World again. On this morning, we all want to be American so we can take a bite of this dream unfolding before our eyes."

'This Sends a Message'

Last year President Nicolas Sarkozy made headlines by selecting three ethnic-minority ministers to his cabinet. But France's main political parties, the right-wing UMP and the Socialists, have been criticized for keeping leading black and Arab figures out of positions of influence.

The representation issue took center stage in France after the racial unrest of 2005 -- which saw riots and burning cars in dozens of cities nationwide -- but three years on, the long-standing political elite have maintained their grip on power. In many neighborhoods anger still bubbles just below the surface. "It was probably the biggest street violence since World War II, but there has been very little reaction from the government. There’s been no real chance for the disaffected urban areas," said Romain Garbaye, author of "Getting into Local Power," an investigation into the politics of minority groups in French and English cities.

In this context, Obama's rise to power gives cause for "guarded optimism," he said. "This sends a message to where it matters most: to the political elites."

Meanwhile the political involvement of minority groups is improving at a city level, which could make change more likely at the top end of the power pyramid. “In 2008 municipal elections in France showed minorities did better than before in France," said Garbaye. "It’s slow but it’s happening. The resistance from political elites will waver. There’s a growing realization that something is happening at a local level."

To mark Obama's win, France's main black advocacy group, the Representative Council of Black Associations, marched to the offices of the two leading parties on Wednesday, calling for more support for minority candidates in next year's European elections. Summing up a national preoccupation, a recent report in the paper Le Monde was entitled: "Looking for the French Barack Obama."

And the British One

In Britain, where "mixed race" is the fastest growing minority group, Obama has been adopted as a role model for a generation of young black men. Patricia Janet Scotland, a peer in the House of Lords who was born in the onetime colony of Dominica, is both the first woman and first black person to become a chief law officer in the British government. She said Obama's victory sent a signal for the younger generation and had shown "that politics does make a difference," according to Times of London.

Asked if there could be a black prime minister in Britain, she responded: "Why not? I would hate for such a person to be judged by the color not character and ability. That is the difference now: In the past people allowed color to be an impediment to judging character ... now the one criterion we as a society judge people by is quality of talent."

But her optimism is a far cry from British political reality. Despite making up at least eight percent of the population, ethnic minorities have just 15 out of 646 parliamentary seats. Despite the pan-European wave of "Obamania," minority groups are still, by and large, on the sidelines of government.

But the Obama story has kept immigrant groups riveted. “The fact there is an African-American president is one thing, but the fact that he is just the second generation, that his dad first migrated, is incredible,” said Cinar Safter, a representative of the Turkish Union in Berlin.

Europe poses a number of hurdles for its minority citizens who might want power. First, adjusting to societal change takes time, and while the US has a long history of immigration, Spain, for example, has only been a country of immigration for the past decade. In other nations, modern labor immigration started after World War II, in the 1950s and '60s.

Meanwhile, negative stereotypes limit success. "Obama succeeded because he found widespread acceptance in the mainstream," said Peter Doerschler from Bloomsburg University, whose research has focused on the Turkish community in Germany. "I don’t think European societies are quite ready to view immigrants as much more than distinct ethnic candidates. Partly this is because of the stigma that immigrants, Muslims in particular, represent security threats and therefore cannot be trusted to work for the common good."

But only time, and future elections, will tell whether Obama's message of "change" is afoot and discrimination is on the wane. "The initial agitation will soon die down," said Garbaye, "but it will not be straight back to business as usual."

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