French Arabs and blacks struggle to win seats in 'white' parliament
PARIS, June 7, 2007 (AFP) – A record number of candidates from France's Arab and black minorities are running for parliament in elections on Sunday but few stand a chance of winning seats in what has been dubbed the “White House.”
One month after France chose Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, as its new president, voters head back to the polls to pick the 577 members of the National Assembly, seen as a bastion of white male power.
None of the 555 outgoing deputies from mainland France are from visible minorities and the overwhelming majority of them are men in their 50s and 60s.
“It's quite simple: there is zero diversity,” said Christiane Taubira, a black MP from French Guiana and one of the 22 deputies from overseas territories.
While political parties are presenting more minority candidates than ever in this election, Taubira lamented that the openness fell short of ensuring the legislature reflects France's “rainbow nation.”
“It's not enough to have more diversity candidates. The question is whether they are in constituencies where they can win,” she said.
Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party has 12 minority candidates running for election, mostly in the Paris region, and the opposition Socialists has 20 vying for seats in the two-round election on Sunday and on June 17.
In the immigrant-heavy Paris suburb of Trappes, Djamal Yalaoui had hoped to carry the Socialist banner but the party leadership chose a Somali-born Muslim woman, Safia Otokore, as its candidate in his district.
Yalaoui, who is running as an independent, said he does not enjoy an advantage among immigrant voters from being Algerian-born and that electing a “beur,” as second-generation north Africans are called, is not an issue in his constituency.
“People couldn't care less about your colour. They just want to know how you can help them in their daily lives,” said Yalaoui, 38, who emigrated to France at the age of five and grew up in the rough housing projects on the outskirts of Paris.
Yalaoui campaigns in Trappes' rundown neighborhoods and turns up at the local mosque after Friday prayers, talking mostly about housing and jobs, with the occasional diatribe against the local police for conducting random checks of young black and Arab men.
Trappes, like other suburbs in the Paris region, was rocked by rioting in 2005 that brought into focus the alienation felt by many descendants of immigrants from Africa who have grown up in France.
Home to Europe's biggest Muslim community of about five million, France has an official policy of ignoring colour or race in its treatment of citizens, who it says are equal before the law regardless of their origins.
There are no statistics on the country's ethnic makeup and attempts by minorities to come together to improve their common lot are treated with deep suspicion as a bid to derail the republican ideal of a colourblind society.
Sarkozy made headway on the diversity front last month when he appointed Rachida Dati, a French-born magistrate of north African parents, as justice minister.
For Jean-Claude Beaujour, the UMP candidate in Paris' multi-ethnic eastern district, this year's crop of diversity candidates is just the beginning.
“Five years ago, the issue of diversity wasn't even discussed,” said Beaujour, 43, who was born in Guadeloupe and moved to Paris at the age of three.
“These parliamentary elections are a starting point to ensure that eventually the political landscape does reflect the country,” he said.
Beaujour said the major parties were hamstrung by incumbents or long-serving party members who did not want to give up their chance at a seat in the name of promoting diversity.
Other than the two mainstream parties, the communist party says it has 70 minority candidates while the centrist Democratic Movement is presenting about 30.
But the leftist Liberation daily described the bid by minority candidates to win election in parliament as “Mission Impossible.”
“We may be talking about diversity and promoting minorities but we will still have, in 2007, an assembly that will essentially remain, obstinately and archaically, monochrome,” wrote Liberation.
Elsewhere in Europe, there are some shades of diversity: Britain has 15 MPs from visible minorities out of 646 while Germany has three Turkish deputies and one of Iranian origin in the Bundestag.
At least eight of the 785 deputies at the European parliament are from visible minorities including Britain's Claude Moraes, born of Indian parents, and London's first ethnic minority MEP.
Subject: French news