Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, First Lady of France
French say ‘Yes, we can!’ too, to ending racism
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 getting nonwhites into positions of power.
“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.
Obama is extremely popular in France, yet blacks and other minorities are nearly invisible in national or local politics here. The lower house of parliament has 555 members from the French mainland; just one is black.
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.”