An Indonesian schoolboy reacts to the announcement that Barack Obama had won the U.S. presidential election last Wednesday at Obama’s former school in Jakarta, Indonesia. Throngs packed plazas and pubs around the world to await U.S. election results, many inspired by Obama’s promise of change. (AP photo/Ed Wray)
PARIS — Inspired by Barack Obama, the French first lady and other leading figures say it’s high time for France to stamp out racism and shake up a white political and social elite that smacks of colonial times.
A manifesto published Sunday — subtitled “Oui, nous pouvons!”, the French translation of Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes, we can!” — urges affirmative action-like policies and other steps to turn French ideals of equality into reality for millions of blacks, Arabs and other alienated minorities.
“Our prejudices are insidious,” Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a singer and wife of President Nicolas Sarkozy, said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, which published the manifesto. She said she hoped the “Obama effect” would reshape French society.
Nations across Europe rejoiced over Obama’s victory, seeing it as a triumph for American democracy and a world weary of President George W. Bush. But Obama’s election also illustrated an uncomfortable truth — how far European countries with big minority populations have to go when it comes to getting nonwhites into positions of power.
Grassroots groups in France and Britain are trying to turn Obama’s election into electoral gains for minorities at home. Sunday’s manifesto suggests France’s elites are taking notice, too.
“The election of Barack Obama 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 appeal said.
“What a lesson!” it went on. “We French … should listen to it well.”
The manifesto was written by Yazid Sabeg, a French self-made millionaire whose parents were Algerian immigrants, and signed by politicians from the left and right and other public figures.
Obama is extremely popular in France, yet blacks and other minorities are nearly invisible in French national or local politics. The lower house of parliament has 555 members from the French mainland. Just one is black.
“We shouldn’t be surprised that Obama’s popularity is so high here: It testifies to the aspirations of all the children of France who are experiencing by proxy a recognition that France does not give them,” the manifesto reads. “It also betrays the bad faith of those who welcome the victory of modernity outside our borders, in order to tolerate the status quo here.”
The manifesto calls for affirmative action policies like those the United States used years ago to encourage greater minority representation in the workplace and in universities.
Sarkozy has suggested affirmative action for France, but later backed away from the idea since it goes against France’s ideals of egalitarianism, which dictate that the country not classify its citizens according to race. This idea that everyone is just “French” means there are no census or other national figures calculating how big the country’s minority groups are.
The manifesto urges term limits to make way for more minority candidates, and presses the government to improve schools in working-class neighborhoods.
That appears to be a reference to housing projects heavily populated by nonwhite immigrants and their families, areas that erupted in riots in 2005 by disenfranchised youth, many of them Arab and black children of immigrants.
Critics say the tough-talking Sarkozy fanned discrimination ahead of the riots. Manifesto author Sabeg slammed efforts under Sarkozy to help minority neighborhoods as “an empty shell.”
Bruni-Sarkozy said she couldn’t sign the appeal because of her status as first lady, but that she fully supported it. She is quoted in the Journal du Dimanche as calling Obama’s election “an immense joy.”
The Italian-born first lady exhibited optimism in her adopted land, saying Sarkozy’s ethnically mixed background is a sign that France is open to change.
“My husband is not Obama. But the French voted for the son of a Hungarian immigrant, whose father has an accent, whose mother is of Jewish origin. [Sarkozy] has always considered himself as a bit of a Frenchman from elsewhere,” Bruni-Sarkozy is quoted as saying.
She also took a dig at the prime minister of her native Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, for saying last week that Obama is “tanned.” The often impolitic and suntanned Berlusconi defended it as a compliment, but Bruni-Sarkozy saw the situation differently.
“I’m very glad to have become French,” she said.
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