Is Europe Ready for a Barack Obama?

As Barack Obama is sworn in as the first black president of the United States, Europeans wonder when -- no make that if -- they will ever see their own "Obama" in Europe.

Could a second-generation immigrant with roots in the black Third World be elected prime minister or president in Europe?

My American friends find it difficult to imagine an immigrant overcoming Europe's white-dominated, slow and elitist political systems anytime soon.

"Does anyone really think that Britain would chose a second-generation Pakistani as its leader?" Yale professor and intellectual heavyweight Harold Bloom said.

"Would Germany choose a child of Turkish immigrants? Or France someone whose parents emigrated from Algeria?"

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But European friends and intellectuals also seem more optimistic, even if most statistics say otherwise.

Raj, a teacher of postcolonial literature whose Indian parents moved to Great Britain in the 1960s, said he could envision a European Obama in the next 10 years. Particularly in Britain, which had a Jewish prime minister in the 19th century, and is perhaps seen as one of the better-integrated European countries.

"Why not? There is a whole new generation who've come on the scene," Raj, who did not want to give his last name, said, referring to politicians such as black MP David Lammy and Asian MP Sadiq Khan. Britain has 15 non-white MPs in the 646-member House of Commons.

"They laid the foundation. Now there is only one needed to crack that last glass ceiling. After all, if they could pick a Scotsman as PM," he said, referring to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, "an Asian shouldn't be so hard," he said, making a tongue-in-cheek reference to the age-old rivalry between the English and the Scots.

British journalist and intellectual Timothy Garton Ash is another who believes an ethnic minority leader in Britain, whose ethnic minorities constitute 8 percent of the population, is "entirely possible."

The country is already halfway to the American kind of civic idea of national identity in which everyone can be an American in ethnic terms, he told The Economist. "In other European countries, like Germany, it is much more difficult. A Turkish German Bundeskanzler is still a stretch," he said.

It was only last year that a German political party for the first time elected a leader with an immigrant background, when Cem Ozdemir, the son of Turkish guest workers, became leader of the Green Party.

But a more telling statistic for the state of racism in Germany is that the 2.9 million people of Turkish background (out of a total German population of 82 million) have just five members among parliament's 613 seats.

In France, Senegal-born state secretary for human rights Rama Yade pulled no punches when she was appointed, describing herself as "a painful exception" in the French government despite President Nicholas Sarkozy choosing three black or Muslim women for his government.

His move was an attempt to answer complaints by the country's immigrants, many of North African descent, who have difficulties reaching the middle and top layers of society, and an anger that erupted in deadly riots in 2005 when the country's marginalized suburbs boiled over with frustration over high unemployment, discrimination and police brutality.

Italy, whose Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ran into trouble when he recently joked about Obama's skin color, is barely off the launching pad in bringing immigrants into politics.

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