Poggioli: Euro Obama Reax

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Listen to Sylvia Poggioli

Sylvia Poggioli, Senior European Correspondent

NPR listeners responded with a high degree of passion and astute remarks to the question I posed last week in my Letter from Europe:" Do Americans really care about Europe the way they once did?" The response was overwhelmingly yes. And now I'd like to offer a post-election update:

Euphoria exploded across Europe early Wednesday morning — from Harry's Bar in Venice to Trafalgar Square in London to Madrid's Puerta del Sol: the great majority of Europeans felt they too had won the US presidential election.

And French president Nicolas Sarkozy summed up the mood on the continent in his congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama: "Your election raises in France, in
Europe and elsewhere in the world, an immense hope". Intense emotions were on view even in the most austere places: at the trial underway in Milan against 26 Americans (mostly alleged CIA agents) for the 2003 kidnapping an Egyptian imam, public prosecutor Armando Spataro told the court, "today the world is living a bright and unforgettable morning".

I was flooded with congratulatory emails and text messages from friends and colleagues from Sarajevo to Brussels and points in between. It's as if in one long night, eight years of tensions between Europe and America had been swept away. A period described by Financial Times Deutschland as "eight years of the culturally alien, politically incompetent, high-handed George W. Bush..."

In Barack Obama, Europeans see a mutual future of friendly dialogue and cooperation. But perhaps the biggest impact of the election of America's first black president was on Europe's millions of minorities, mostly politically disenfranchised.

The picture is gloomy throughout the continent: in Britain, minorities represent about 8 percent of the population, but they hold only 15 out of 646 parliamentary seats — that's .02 percent;
in Germany, minorities hold 10 of the 612 seats in the Lower House; in Italy, there is only one black among nearly 1,000 deputies and senators; and in France, where there are an estimated 5 to 6 million Muslims and millions more blacks, there is only one black deputy and 4 senators whose roots are in North Africa; and hardly any of the 35,000-odd mayors are of immigrant origin.

When elected President of France last year, Sarkozy took the bold step of appointing three ethnic minority women to his cabinet. One of them, Rama Yade, Undersecretary for Human Rights and the only black member of government, welcomed Barack Obama's election saying, "America is a New World again. On this morning, we all want to be American so we can take a bite of this dream unfolding before our eyes".

But no one here has illusions that Europeans will soon elect a leader from one of their ethnic minorities. In recent years, the influx of millions of immigrants has caused upheavals in European societies that are based on the 19th century model of the mono-ethnic nation-state.
And the backlash is still reverberating: extreme right-wing anti-immigrant parties have made big gains throughout the continent, especially in Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy. The presence of extreme rightists in the European Parliament is so strong that for the first time, they can form their own parliamentary group.

Several listeners took issue with my remark that Europe is the historical cradle of anti-Americanism. The emphasis is on the word historical. After living in Europe for several decades, I think I can say with certainty that even before Tuesday's election, Europeans have nowhere near the level of animosity toward Americans that they had in the past. For example, by the 18th century French scientist Georges Buffon, who never visited America, elaborated a theory that nature in the New World was degenerate, producing weaker and less potent human beings — a theory that so infuriated Thomas Jefferson that he tried to combat it scientifically. Jefferson got himself a dead moose and brought it with him to Paris where he displayed the 7-foot-tall carcass in the entry hall of his hotel. Buffon was invited to inspect the American mammal, but the French scientist — himself less than 5 feet tall — was unimpressed and refused to revise his theory of the inferiority of American nature.

Rudyard Kipling, in his book American Notes, established some of the stereotypes that still influence European thinking about America: he wrote about what he saw as Americans' excessive appetite and impatience, their hyperbolic patriotism, their boorish materialism and their sanctimoniousness. And in the 1950's, in France, anti-Americanism went so far as to denounce imported American refrigerators as a plot to destroy French cuisine.

Today, Paris is dotted by McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks. And today's Europeans often visit the USA. I know several who, thanks to the strong Euro, have bought real estate in the US. The other night I spoke at length with Giulia, a young Italian woman in her mid-20's for whom one brief visit to the US had erased years of snobbish prejudices. Her 10-day trip to New York transformed her into an avid fan of Saturday Night Live and David Letterman, and she was more knowledgeable than I am about new musical trends and young contemporary American writers. Giulia spent election night with a group of like-minded Italian Obamaniacs.
The one strident note this week was that of right-wing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — who considers himself a loyal friend of George W. Bush. On a visit to Moscow, he referred to the US President-elect as "young, handsome and suntanned."

That vulgar quip earned banner headlines and negative editorials, as well charges of racism from the opposition. But was it really so surprising? Ministers in the Berlusconi government, members of the xenophobic Northern League, have been heard to refer to blacks as "bingo bongo."

But these Italian officials were the exception. The huge outpouring of good feelings for America from all over Europe is a good start to help heal the wounds of the last 8 years and to narrow the gap on major trans-Atlantic divisions from NATO, from trade and financial issues to combating terrorism. Most of all, it should encourage Europeans to grant equal opportunities to their growing immigrant populations.

Link: Sylvia Poggioli's first "Letter From Europe"

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