The French presidential election is the first to be held in the country since the arrival of a president of mixed race in the White House, in the US. Barack Obama’s victory, well-received in France, shone a spotlight on how under-represented France’s visible minorities are in politics.
Could the main parties field a candidate of mixed race, or one who is black, Arab or Asian? Could France one day have a black or mixed race president like Barack Obama?
When Obama got into office, 80 percent of the French said they would vote for him. They wished him well, and still do.
A Parisian woman interviewed at random by euronews said: “I think it’s good that someone of mixed race was elected in the US. It really shows a change of mentality.”
Another Parisian said: “I was very pleased, and I think he’ll be re-elected this time around.”
But when our journalist asked: “Do you think it would be possible in France?”
He answered: “In France it’s different. Opinion polls show the most popular people are blacks and Arabs, but [someone like the tennis player] Yannick Noah will never be elected president.”
And another woman said: “If there was a black, and Asian or an Indian person that wouldn’t bother me, but if there isn’t, there isn’t; it’s just that no one wants to stand.”
Patrick Lozès has tried, but he did not get the backing required. In France to become a candidate to run for president you need 500 mayors to sponsor you. Only one non-white person has done that: Christine Taubira, in 2002, MP for French Guiana, with the small PRG centre-left party. Even after Obama, none of the big parties have had candidates from the visible minorities.
Christine Taubira told euronews: “The big parties don’t much care about the subject, and it’s also because the people who might run tend to be satisfied with militant activism or getting on to city councils, but they don’t set out for conquest, for power. First they need to seize party leadership to pursue ambitions of supreme power.”
Patrick Lozès said: “There is a political elite in Paris that’s completely closed to the diversity of French society. But I think we also have to see that there’s no place for people from rural France either, or for women, and there isn’t a place for people who have an accent.”
Christine Taubira added: “I believe the effect of Barack Obama’s election was very temporary. It had what I call a Tartuffe hypocrisy effect. There was this dazzling enthusiasm, especially among the political classes, and then nothing! That’s to say: there were no plans or even any thinking about it, to ask ourselves what place there should be for these French people.”
Amirouche Laïdi also blames the media, he says, for showing France as one colour only. He is a deputy mayor of the Paris region town of Suresnes and chairman of the Averroes Club, which promotes diversity in the media.
Amirouche Laïdi said: “Diversity today should be represented as widespread, day-to-day, and above all, by the numbers. If it is under-represented on television, politics, which just tags along, with very little courage, will not represent this diversity on electoral lists.”
France has millions of citizens who are described as visible minorities, mostly living in former colonies that are called “overseas territories” today. They are descended from its history of colonial conquest, slavery and the immigration policies of the last century.
Sociologist Eric Keslassy says their under-representation in the Assemblée Nationale (France’s lower chamber of parliament) should worry people.
Eric Keslassy explained why he thinks that: “Fewer than one percent of members of parliament are from the visible minorities, so there’s a flagrant discrepancy with social reality in the chamber that’s said to be nationally representative. It’s extremely worrying for democratic vitality, if nothing else. The French absolutely have to realise that a French person can be something other than white. Once we’ve realised that, they have to admit there are some prejudices that must be fought, so that equal rights are respected.”
Quite close to the Assemblée Nationale there is an exhibition about stereotypes, at the Quai Branly Museum. It is called ‘The Invention of the Savage’ and shows how people from all the far corners of the globe were put on show at fairs, in circuses and zoos.
One of the experts who put the exhibition together is historian Pascal Blanchard, who said: “This exhibition allows us to understand where the views we have today come from, to comprehend that a culture was built up over the years, and that in a mixed race society like we have today there are lots of stereotypes about other people; and to see that the lack of representation in certain public spaces is no accident – it’s the product of history.”
Euronews reporter Michèle Bouchet, after talking to people of all walks of life, concluded: “Visible minorities, diversity, the offspring of immigration – these are terms used by politicians and the media to describe French people who aren’t white – terms that are vague, cold and seem to conceal discomfort.”
Patrick Lozès, who failed in his attempt to even run for president, has an opinion on that: “I think our guilty conscience makes us avoid some words and beat around the bush.”
While historian Pascal Blanchard believes: “Words hide what is difficult to say. It’s okay to talk about race in the US, but in France if you say the word you’re out in the cold, no matter how you say it, even if it’s scientific. The majority always has trouble relating to the minority.”
Amirouche Laïdi thinks France has a long way to go: “The Americans dare to talk about things, and they dare to write them down in numbers. But we’re not there yet.”
Hurtful words are familiar to Cuong Pham Phu. He is French, of Vietnamese origins, loves France, is on the town council of Lognes in the Paris region and is trying to become an MP. He is helping fellow citizens of Asian origin to break a long political silence.
Cuong Pham Phu outlined the problems he has encountered: “I told the wife of a former socialist MP how much I love my country, and she told me, ‘Cuong, your country is where you come from; it’s not France, it’s Vietnam’.”
The depth of this gulf in perception was demonstrated, by the Interior Minister in 2009, widely thought to be talking about French people of Arab origins, when he said: “One is all right. It’s when there are lots of them you get problems.”
The famous perfume-maker Jean-Paul Guerlain was charged with making racial insults after he said: “I worked like a nigger, though I don’t know if niggers have ever worked that hard.”
The Quai Branly exhibition invites each of us to think about how we relate to others, whatever differences there may be – of size, or sexual orientation, or religious conviction, or skin colour, or anything else.