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Page last updated at 09:47 GMT, Thursday, 13 November 2008

Washington diary: European Obamas?

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Imagine if John McCain had beaten Barack Obama.

Barack Obama
A European equivalent of Mr Obama is an unlikely prospect

Apart from disbelief among Democrats and bullet-dodging relief among Republicans, the world's public opinion would probably have come to the conclusion that America was too racist to elect a black President.

Now, a different question is being asked in Berlin, Paris and London: are WE too racist to ever elect a Turkish German Chancellor, an Algerian French President or a Pakistani British Prime Minister?

I put this question to the affable and uncharacteristically dishevelled French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in the elegant environs of the French ambassador's residence in Washington today.

"Will there ever be a French Obama?" I asked.

"Not any time soon," he responded with un-diplomatic honesty.

"But give us time. Perhaps the result here will inspire us."

Lagging behind

France is home to more than two million Algerian immigrants who moved there after the bloody collapse of French colonial rule in Algeria.

It is also host to some half a million Senegalese immigrants.

And yet there is only one African-born deputy in the National Assembly.

President Sarkozy has brought three black or Muslim women to his cabinet.

When it comes to the representation of ethnic minorities in parliament or in public life, Europe lags woefully behind the United States

But one of them, the Senegalese-born minister for human rights, Rama Yade, has called her appointment "a painful exception".

Germany is even further behind when it comes to ethnic integration.

It boasts not a single German-Turkish politician on the national level, even though there are three million Germans of Turkish descent living in the country.

The left-wing Berlin newspaper Die Tageszeitung had a picture of the White House with the headline: Uncle Barack's Cabin, a reference to the 19th Century anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

And then, of course, there was the vintage offering of Italy's maestro of gaffes Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who complimented Barack Obama on his "suntan".

When it comes to the representation of ethnic minorities in parliament or in public life, Europe lags woefully behind the United States.

Cheap labour

Of course, modern America would not exist without immigration.

To understand this, all one has to do is witness a naturalisation ceremony, where immigrants from around the world buy into the pool of American citizenship if they meet a simple set of criteria.

It is, as they say, "an empowering experience".

Ethnicity does not really come into it.

In Europe, immigration was driven by the collapse of colonialism and expanding post-war economies in search of cheap labour.

Immigrants were shipped in for a particular purpose.

Rama Yade
French human rights minister Rama Yade was born in Senegal

The Germans called them gastarbeiter or guest workers.

But the guests out-stayed their welcome.

They wanted to become citizens.

They were caressed by the host culture but rarely embraced by it.

This is a problem that most European countries are still coming to terms with, and the riots in the banlieues or sprawling housing estates around Paris and Marseille in 2005, or the anger of British Muslims who are willing to wear suicide-bomber vests on the London tube, are different manifestations of the same painful issue.

Ethnically ambiguous

Barack Obama's election is indeed an inspiration.

But we should not not forget that America's first black president is also half white.

He was raised by a white mother and white grandparents.

He thrived in the largely white ivory towers of Harvard and Columbia.

He is not the descendant of African slaves but the son of a Kenyan economist, who was educated at American universities.

So if Barack Obama is post-racial it is also because he is ethnically ambiguous enough for most Americans to feel comfortable with him.

In that sense too he is the Tiger Woods or Lewis Hamilton of American politics: cool, concentrated and ethnically mixed.

Remember, the biggest hurdle at the beginning of his campaign was not that he was black but that he was not black enough.

Barack Obama has breezed into America's bitter world of sub-prime housing, rising unemployment and lost prosperity like a welcome tonic.

Even his opponents can find a reason to celebrate his victory.

George Bush welcomed his arrival in the White House as a milestone of history - despite the fact that Mr Obama may very well never have got his hands on the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue if it had not been for the crashing failures (as most Americans perceive it) of the outgoing administration.

Europe too sees his election as a revival of the American dream.

The Middle East is lost for words that a man called Barack "Hussein" Obama can be at the helm of the Great Satan.

And so on.

Once again we are all Americans again.

Without wishing to spoil the party some backlash is surely inevitable.

Can President Obama use his considerable skills to deal with it?

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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