TOPICS : ‘Obama effect’: A wind of change

Thank you America!” At 5 a.m. in France, on the night of the US presidential elections, thousands of French took to the streets, crying with joy at the news of Barack Obama’s victory.

The French have not been this excited about the US since Jackie Kennedy’s visit to Paris in 1961. For the elite, President-elect Obama embodies a new chapter in transatlantic relations. But for the French African and Arab minorities, the new American president is even more than that: He represents the equality of opportunity they do not have in French politics.

France is indeed home to one of Europe’s largest black communities and the biggest Muslim minority. One in 10 of its inhabitants is of Arab or African origin. However, the traditional French model of integration is a political failure, and France’s political elite remains overwhelmingly white. If nothing changes, a French Obama won’t happen anytime soon. The victory of Obama is holding a mirror to France. And the country is by no means an example.

In the US, there are approximately 10,000 black elected officials. In France, there has not been a black mayor elected since 1989, when a mayor of Togolese origin was elected in a small village in Brittany. And until six months ago, there was not a single mayor of non-European immigrant origins in office. Of the 577 members of the National Assembly (the French Congress), none is from the country’s first- or second-generation immigrant population, and only one black congresswoman has been elected in metropolitan France.

What explains this stark contrast? France abolished slavery nearly

20 years before the US, and the French society is not more

conservative than the American. So what is the problem? 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.

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 US. 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. Of course, a French Obama won’t emerge tomorrow. But France, too, can embrace change, and, when it does, it will finally become a country of real equal opportunity for its millions of African and Arab

citizens. — The Christian Science Monitor