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Europe's Minority Politicians in Short Supply

Barriers Are Cracking, but Parliaments Still Don't Reflect Changing Populaces

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page A14

PARIS -- Mariam Osman Sherifay is a Muslim woman, born in Egypt. Coskun Coruz left his native Turkey as a child. And Paul Boateng is a soft-spoken and dapper lawyer, a black man who spent most of his childhood in Ghana.

Today Sherifay lives in Sweden, Coruz lives in the Netherlands and Boateng lives in Britain. The three have never met. But together they are quiet trailblazers of a sort, members of one of the most exclusive groups in Europe -- minority lawmakers elected to the parliaments in their respective countries.

Paul Boateng, Britain's chief secretary to the treasury, is Britain's first black cabinet minister. He says constituents see beyond the question of his race. (Keith Richburg -- The Washington Post)

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They say they do not consider themselves pioneers, representatives of their groups or role models. But they, and a handful of others, are chipping away at one of the most durable color barriers in a fast-changing Europe, the doors to legislative chambers.

"I, in my life, have tried to break down barriers," said Boateng, chief secretary to the treasury, who in 2002 became Britain's first black cabinet minister. "I am black and proud of my ethnic origins." But he added, "I do not regard myself as a black member of Parliament. . . . I think it's very important that all young people feel they can aspire to a life in public service."

In Western Europe, decades of immigration from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have created large black and Muslim populations -- at least 10 percent in France, Britain and the Netherlands, and 7 percent in Sweden. The newcomers and their children are changing the faces of some of the largest cities; Islam is Europe's second-largest religion.

Europe has other migrants as well -- Russian Jews have settled in Germany and refugees from the former Yugoslavia have found homes across Western Europe. These people frequently have cultures and racial characteristics similar to those of the people in their new countries, and assimilation has often been relatively smooth.

The story has been different for Africans and Middle Eastern Muslims. While they have taken to Europe's soccer fields and increasingly are helping to define the arts and popular culture, they have remained largely invisible in elective government.

To change that, many minority politicians in Europe say they look for inspiration from the United States, where minorities have a larger presence in national and local elective offices. There are differences in history and electoral systems -- the European systems tend to make it difficult for minority neighborhoods to elect minority representatives -- but many minority politicians say the U.S. experience suggests that taking their place in European government will be a long process.

Blacks were present in the United States as slaves at its founding, and were first elected to the U.S. Congress in the 1870s. But the barriers really began to crumble in the 1960s, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the consolidation of black political power in cities and the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969. The caucus has 43 members, and blacks make up about 10 percent of the 435-member House, just below their 13 percent level in the population.

Soaring Immigration

Britain's contemporary immigration wave began after World War II, with the arrival of large numbers of Jamaican workers. Elsewhere in Europe, the trend dates to the 1960s, when Germany and the Netherlands began admitting large numbers of Turks and Moroccans as workers. At the same time, Moroccans and Algerians came to France in force.

Strict citizenship rules in some countries have often prevented the foreign-born from becoming citizens or being eligible to run for office. In Germany, residents with foreign parents are still referred to as auslander, "outsiders." But even in places where gaining citizenship is easier -- such as Sweden and the Netherlands -- few of the newcomers and their locally born children have become active in politics until recently.

The starkest case is France, a country of about 60 million people with about 6 million North African Muslims and an estimated 2.5 million blacks from south of the Sahara desert -- an estimate, because France officially does not keep statistics by race. France prides itself as a country of egalite, or equality, where discrimination, officially at least, does not exist. But of 555 deputies representing districts in continental France, none is black or Muslim. (Minorities do hold some of the 22 seats representing France's overseas territories.)

"If I were a member of Parliament and white and looking at this every day, clearly this would be a point of concern," said Patrick Lozes, a black pharmacist and activist who is trying to increase black political representation in France. "How can they live and work and vote on laws and see the Parliament is clearly not representative?"

Germany, with 82 million people, is home to 3.5 million Muslims, mostly Turkish citizens and Germans of Turkish descent. But among the 603 members of the German Parliament, or Bundestag, there are two people of Turkish descent, Ekin Deligöz, a Green Party member who received German citizenship in 1997, and Lale Akguen of the ruling Social Democrats, who has lived in Germany for more than 40 years.

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