Dredging race out of the closet

It didn’t take long for the “Obama effect” to hit France. Just two days after the first African-American was elected president, the French are jumping on the chance to assess their own political makeup. The covers of nearly all the major newspapers this morning addressed the issue, with one poignant message on the cover of Libération: “The election of a bi-racial man to the White House puts in motion the debate about the weak presence of minorities among the French elite.”

While most admit that it’s not the color of Obama’s skin that counts but the words exiting his mouth, no one can ignore the magnitude of his election as a minority. Surely not in France, where Africans from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad pack boats headed for the harbours of Marseille, or hop ships to Spain and drive all the way through the country to jump the border into France. In a country with so many Africans, one would assume that several must hold positions of power.

Au contraire, mon frère. The National Assembly holds just one minority in the name of Deputy George Pau-Langevin. Then there is the Minister of Justice Rachida Dati, Human Rights Secretary of State Rama Yade, and Urban Policies Secretary of State Fadela Amara. Many French agree that since Nicolas Sarkozy became president, his version of “affirmative action” is what got several of these candidates their positions. “Not that they’re not competent,” adds my French co-worker as a buffer.

While the French seem inspired by America’s step towards racial equality, no one seems too optimistic about their country’s future. My English co-worker, who has lived in France for twenty years, said this morning, “There’s no way it will happen in France.” “Ever?” I reply. “No, I really don’t think so. I can’t see it.”

I try to cajole her into believing in the dream. “Surely if America can do it, so can France. I mean, we just had slavery a few decades ago,” I say. She smirks and doesn’t seem convinced. Neither is the first black candidate to run for president of France in 2002, the now Deputy of Guyane Christiane Taubira. “Neither of the two major parties, not the UMP or the PS, are capable today of accomplishing what the Democratic party did in the United States,” she noted in a November 6 article in Sud Ouest’s Bergerac/Sarlat edition.

What are the French to do? Hide behind their cafés and berets? In French-like fashion, I doubt it. While America has grown increasingly more apathetic (withholding this recent US election process), the French have always remained spirited. Just today, union workers for the national train system, the SNCF, went on strike to protest a project that would modify work hours for conductors. With 50% fewer trains rolling out today, protesters hope their calls for change will make a difference. And what about all those passengers who will be stuck taking the bus instead? Well, people will just have to get over it.

In France, it is understood that if you don’t agree with something, you’ve got to make your voice heard. Protests pop up in this country as often as chains of McDonalds do in the U.S. While not all protests produce a successful outcome, the national exposure of their plight is a start. And it certainly can’t hurt.

I expect Obama’s election will inspire a new fervor in France. Come election time – for no matter which office – the question of race will not only for the first time be present in political conversation, but also debatable. The editor of Sud Ouest wrote on November 6, “Obama’s election makes our country appear much older and more closed off than Bush’s presidency ever accomplished. He is someone Europe and the Old World have always dreamed about. He has put an end to all the nightmares of injustice against black people and to those who mistreat others.”

Obama’s election forces France, Europe and all the world’s countries to deal with their race and immigration issues, regardless of how much they would like to ignore them. Because of one man, race is finally coming out of the closet. And I expect a protest or two.

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2 responses to “Dredging race out of the closet

  1. Pingback: Yes he is « France Insider by Paul Ben-Itzak

  2. Robert Harneis

    Your work colleague is a bit down beat and maybe not a fan of the present government. Rachida Dati is in a top position and a lot more competent than her many enemies in the ever whinging legal profession make out.

    Referring to your piece on Nov 4th about how the French did not think Obama would be elected because he was black. First off he is not totally black as in Uncle Tom is he? Second would he have been elected if the buffoons who run the present US government had not let Lehman Bros go bust thus wrecking the joint completely and scaring a whole lot of people shitless?

    The real question now is will he be able to remain his original intelligent self or will he become yet another victim of the system? His choice of Chief of Staff of Rham Emmanuel, an Israeli citizen, gives a very mixed signal. Still as Churchill said in his farewell speech to the British House of Commons “Never despair!”. And yes the man is a real change after GWB which is a good start.

    Hope you are enjoying your trip.

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