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Ethnic Politicians Struggle in Europe; Find Hope in Obama Campaign 


Although U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama, an African-American, is enjoying momentum from 11 straight wins in Democratic presidential nominating contests, minority politicians in Europe are still struggling. They often make up only a small percentage in parliaments across Europe. And only a few hold high-ranking positions in government. From the town of Thiais, west of Paris, Lisa Bryant reports times are beginning to change.

It is a frigid Sunday morning in Thiais as Zohra Bitan passes out flyers for her run as mayor of this conservative Paris suburb. It is Bitan's first run for office, and she is not a known face. Many residents hurry by to shop for fruits, vegetables and fish at the town's weekly outdoor market.

Bitan is the candidate of the opposition Socialist party. But the town has been voting for the same mayor of the ruling conservative UMP party, for more than two decades. And she faces another challenge. If elected during municipal voting next month, she will be the town's first ethnic North African mayor.

But Bitan, whose parents immigrated to France from Algeria, says her ethnic background should not be a factor.

Bitan agrees that that ethnic immigrants here need to be harder working and more determined to erase prejudices that might stand in their way. But she sees herself as French, not Algerian.

Still, minority politicians like Bitan, in France and in Europe, are struggling for a voice. Many of them are black and Muslim and their families came here seeking work decades ago.

In France, for example, only one of the almost 600 members of parliament is a racial minority. There are none in the Senate.

Patrick Lozes, is head of CRAN, an umbrella association of black groups in France.

In the March municipal elections, Lozes claims that the two leading French parties, the ruling UMP and the opposition Socialists, are fielding only a handful of minority candidates, in the largest towns and cities of France. He believes they should be doing more.

Similar criticism is aired elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, where ethnic Turks make up about 10 percent of the population, they hold less than one percent of the seats in parliament. Minorities have even less clout in Italy and Spain, where immigration is a more recent phenomenon.

Even in Britain, often considered a European model for multiculturalism, politicians like Diane Abbott complain of only painfully slow progress. Abbott became the first female black member of Parliament 20 years ago. Today she is among only 15 minority MPs.

"The problem is racism really. If 20 years after the first wave [of minorities entering British parliament] the wave has turned into a trickle, you have to look at racism," she said.

Europe is closely following the elections in the United States, in large part, experts like Thomas Valasek say, because Europeans are hoping for a change from the Bush administration. And, says Valasek, an analyst at the Center for European Reform in London, many Europeans consider the two Democratic contenders, senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the best candidates for change.

"And when you look at the two Democratic candidates, of course Obama is the bigger embodiment of change than Clinton. And also frankly because of who Obama is. He's seen by many as the embodiment of the American dream," he said.

In Thiais, Bitan is also following Barack Obama and his chance of becoming America's first black president. But she doubts a Barack Obama will emerge in France anytime soon.

Bitan says France is ready to elect mayors or members of parliament who are a racial minority. But she says the country is not ready for an ethnic minority as president.

Pap Ndiaye, an expert on American politics at EHESS, the High School of Social Studies in Paris, says France lags behind the U.S. in terms of diversity in politics.

"It's changing, but extremely slowly given the conservatism of French political life and French political organizations that pay lip service to diversity but don't do much when it comes to appointing minority candidates to various positions," he said.

Still, there are positive signs. Last year, President Nicolas Sarkozy selected an unusually diverse cabinet, choosing three women from African and Arab backgrounds for top posts, including justice minister.

In Italy, the fledgling New Immigrants Party is fielding candidates for April's parliamentary elections for the first time. And in the Netherlands, where two Muslims were selected to senior cabinet posts, another first, Coskun Coruz, a member of parliament who immigrated from Turkey, says the Dutch parliament is among the most diverse in Europe when it comes to minority representation.

Coruz too is looking at the U.S. election. If Obama wins, he believes, it might send a signal to Europe.

"Of course Obama give concrete evidence to the American dream. To be black and to become the next president of America. [It means that] if you work hard and you believe in yourself and you have a good message, there is always a possibility to reach a high position," he said.

Coruz has his own message for minorities in the Netherlands. If they're not happy with their situation, they must work for change. He says ethnic immigrants must learn how to be European citizens. Coruz, who arrived in the Netherlands from Turkey at age six, now says he feels "200 percent Dutch."

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