- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

THIAIS, France — An ocean away from where Sen. Barack Obama is coasting on 11 straight primary wins, Zohra Bitan is at the starting blocks, giving out fliers on a bitter Sunday morning for her run as mayor in this staunchly conservative Paris suburb.

If elected next month, the 44-year-old daughter of Algerian immigrants would be the town’s first minority mayor. Like Mr. Obama, Ms. Bitan argues the campaign is not about race.

“It’s true, we need to work harder and be more determined to erase the prejudices people have of us,” said Ms. Bitan, a small woman with curly black hair. “But I don’t see myself as an immigrant. I haven’t even been to Algeria in 25 years.”

However imperfect, diversity is now a fact of life in U.S. politics. Not so in Europe.

In France and elsewhere, minorities — blacks and Muslims in particular — are only beginning to flex their political muscles.

In Germany, where ethnic Turks make up roughly 10 percent of the population, they hold less than 1 percent of parliamentary seats.

Minorities have even less political clout in countries like Italy and Spain, where immigration is a more recent phenomenon.

Even in Britain, considered a European model of multiculturalism, minority politicians such as Diane Abbott complain of tedious progress.

“The problem is racism, really,” said 52-year-old Ms. Abbott, who in 1987 became the first black woman elected to British Parliament.

Today, she counts among only 15 minority members of Parliament.

“If after 20 years, the first wave of minorities entering British Parliament has turned into a trickle, you have to look at racism.”

In metropolitan France, only one of the parliament”s 577 deputies is a minority; not one holds a seat in the French Senate.

While ethnic North and sub-Saharan Africans, many hailing from former French colonies, make up roughly 10 percent or more of the population, their exact numbers are unknown. France bars official polls based on racial or religious identity.

“In the U.S., you see blacks heading big companies. Not in France,” said Patrick Lozes, head of CRAN, a group representing black associations in France. “Colin Powell headed the U.S. military [as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff].

“You look at France and there”s not a single black in the military hierarchy. In the U.S., mayors of top cities are minorities. Out of 36,000 cities in France, very few are run by minority mayors.”

France”s ruling conservative UMP party and leading opposition Socialists are only fielding a handful of minority candidates for mayor in the largest 420 municipalities up for grabs in March elections, Mr. Lozes estimates.

On a smaller scale in Thiais, population 28,000, rookie Ms. Bitan is not only pitted against a veteran incumbent but also against entrenched attitudes of residents like 56-year-old Georges Violin.

“I”m skeptical,” Mr. Violin said about the Socialists running for municipal office.

“There are a lot of immigrants in the party, and we”re against immigrants. We French won”t say it”s racism, but it”s skepticism.”

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