'The Obama Effect' Prompts Europeans To Confront Racism

President-elect Barack Obama's historic win is the source of much discussion overseas. Many Europeans hope that the election of an African American president in the US will spur their own countries to re-examine their own racial dynamics. Steven Erlanger, New York Times' Paris Bureau Chief, and author Mely Kiyak explain the phenomenon of "The Obama Effect."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's our Thursday international briefing. We'll talk about why one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists is just south of the border. And why Rwandans are switching from French to English.

But first, we want to talk about the Obama effect across the Atlantic. In this country, we've already begun talking about what an African-American president might mean for our country's politics and culture. But it turns out that conversation is also going on across the Atlantic where some people are wondering whether the election of an African-American president in the U.S. could spark European nations to examine their own racial dynamics.

Joining us to talk about this is Steven Erlanger, the New York Times Paris bureau chief, and Mely Kiyak; she is a freelance journalist in Berlin and the author of "Ten For Germany," a book about Turkish politicians in Germany. Steven is here with me in the Washington bureau where he is on a home visit, I guess we can say, and Mely is in Berlin. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (Paris Bureau Chief, New York Times): Thanks.

Ms. MELY KIYAK (Freelance Journalist; Author, "Ten For Germany"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Steven, let me start with you. During the presidential campaign, the polls in Europe showed that most Europeans or those surveyed favored Barack Obama over John McCain. Why was that?

Mr. ERLANGER: It was about 85 percent. It's not like they knew what he stood for. I think Obama for them represented a kind of dream of what the world might be like - let's all be friends, let's all mix together. And secondly, I think it was the notion of a younger generational shift from the Bush years, which most people in Europe regarded as a disaster.

MARTIN: And of course, you mentioned that a lot of people don't necessarily know what he stands for. Of course, the war in Iraq, extremely unpopular in many countries in Europe. So on the one hand, from a policy perspective, it doesn't seem surprising that somebody who promised to end the war and was against the war from the beginning would be popular. But was Senator Obama's race discussed as part of the package - I guess what I'm asking is, do you think it was more policy or more him?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I think it was more him, to be honest. I mean, partly it's policy because he talked about climate change, which the Europeans care about and Bush never wanted to talk about, and he talked about closing Guantanamo, which was a big issue for the Europeans. But there was also this sense of, he was kind of - the French called him le metisse, and that's a word they use for someone who's half-African and half-French. It comes out of their colonial past. And they said, this is a different figure. He's not Al Sharpton. He's not a descendant of slaves. He's a descendant of an African, of a Kenyan, and somehow, in the French mind, this made him different. That was something that put him in French cultural eyes as something special and recognizable, but also in American terms obviously very exceptional.

MARTIN: And since the election, though, there have been comments made that have rather explicitly referenced his race and coming from what are to some some surprising quarters. Like the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, called Obama young, handsome and even suntanned.

Mr. ERLANGER: There are idiots everywhere.

MARTIN: Well, a lot of Americans said, well, what is that? Is that - was that intended to be offensive? And he says he was joking, but then there have been others that - from other figures, newspapers, that seem either intentionally offensive or don't seem to give any regard for the offense that that may cause. And in fact, in Germany there have been some - what I would call racist demonstrations aimed at President-elect Obama. What do you make of them?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, there was one in Austria, too. I think it's a kind of minor key because in general, as we said, 85 percent of Europeans wanted him to win, and youth, for them, it's kind of a Woodstock moment. I mean, I think his race, you know, his mixed race - that's the important part - is seen as really a positive thing and an interesting thing and a fascinating thing, and that's what people are asking. Can someone like that come through the European political system?

MARTIN: Mely, let's bring you into the conversation. What are you hearing and seeing, particularly in Germany, about the way Germans - particularly minorities in Germany are reacting to Obama's election?

Ms. KIYAK: Well, I can tell you from Germany that the reactions about Obama were in the majority all very happy. The reactions in the media about George Bush was in the last five years very negative. And Obama came, and it seemed to be that he could not only be a change to America's politics but for the politics in Europe, too. No one really believed that Obama would be elected even in the last 24 hours. People said, no, this dream will not be true, and after it came true, they were a little bit, like, shocked.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Steve Erlanger, Paris bureau chief for the New York Times and Mely Kiyak about the election of Barack Obama here in the U.S. and what that might mean for race relations in Europe.

Steven, until the early part of the 20th century - I think I have this right - the nations of Europe were pretty homogeneous racially, and then immigration began occurring in the mid-20th century, which is a different pattern than of course we have in the U.S. with slavery and other - I mean, we've had waves of immigration from Europe and also from Latin and Central America. But has this immigration caused a dialogue about race in Europe?

Mr. ERLANGER: It is causing one. I mean, it's a post-colonial phenomenon in Europe. I mean, after all, Europe, you know, as you say, the states are pretty mono-ethnic, mono-religious, at least they used to be. When the colonial empires broke up after the Second World War, many of these people - whether in France's case from Northern Africa or Central Africa - they had French citizenship or they had ties to France, and they were allowed to immigrate. And some of them came to work. Many of them were Muslim, and they created a whole different set of populations that are fairly new and still trying to figure out their identity. In Germany, this is different because in a way what happened in Germany is they imported Turks to work in the German economic wonder after the war in the '60s, and many of those Turks stayed and had families.

MARTIN: And is that - does that create a different dynamic?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it does, partly because it's newer and partly because it - it isn't about slavery, I mean, which is a very important point. But it also is a big problem because what does it mean to be French? You know, I mean, does it mean that you're a white Catholic, you know? Or does it mean you can also be a Tunisian-born Muslim? And how are you treated? And you know, the French have this idea of citizenship, you know. Everyone is a citizen, which comes out of the French Revolution but that means religion is not supposed to play any role in the public space, and there's some degree of racism but there's also a sense among many French that somehow these immigrants aren't really French and they shouldn't be part of French politics, and there isn't affirmative action in the same way. I mean, they're still groping with all these notions of identity. So it's a conversation in progress, I believe.

MARTIN: Mely, in this country, we - to the degree that you talk about race, we talk about race, but I think a lot of Americans get the sense that the fault line in Europe is more about religion. Do you think that that's fair or do you think it's race and religion tied up together and people can't really separate them?

Ms. KIYAK: Well, in Germany it's a very interesting case because in Germany we don't talk about race and because of that we don't talk about racism. We talk about discrimination sometimes but in fact, for Germans, it's very interesting which ethnic background someone has and which religion he has. Although we've got anti-discrimination law but nevertheless, in Germany, if you look into the media, the politics and everywhere where society is organized, you can see that there are only people from the same, as I call it, the same club, white and Christians. And for all the other people who are different from this point, it's very difficult to take part in the discussion about discrimination also and to take part in the society. But at the end, we don't say there is something like discrimination in Germany, but in fact there is.

MARTIN: But Mely, it's my understanding that only about a third of people of Turkish heritage in Germany have citizenship. First of all, do I have that right and why is that? Is that that people don't want to or is that that the laws make it difficult?

Ms. KIYAK: Yes. This is the big difference to maybe America or to France. In France, for example, if you are born on French ground, you're automatically a French with a citizenship. In Germany it's not like that. We've got the ius sanguinus principle. This means we decide if someone is German or not because of his blood. And it is very difficult to get the German citizenship. And to get the German citizenship, you have to give up your Turkish passport, and the Turkish people in Germany, they don't want to give up their Turkish passports because they think they give up their Turkish identities, and this has to do with the discussions.

In Germany, we always talk about what can someone do to be a German? Is someone worth to be a German? He has to make tests. He has to make so many things. And even if he get the German citizenship, he can take part, he can elect and can be elected. But even if you have got the German passport, people who are ethnic German don't accept you as a German. And for all the migrant people, they came and they wanted to go back. And this, to go back, is the reason why, maybe - I mean, this is a mosaic of reasons - but one reason is that people think, well, if the discrimination in Germany becomes great, I have my Turkish passport and I can go back.

MARTIN: And finally, and I'd love to hear from both of you on this, and Mely, if you would start. Do you think that Obama's election will cause Europeans to feel that they perhaps need to look differently at the racial dynamics of their own countries?

Ms. KIYAK: I think they don't do it enough but they start to do. And the people who gave the idea are - this is very interesting in Germany, too - are the journalists with other ethnic backgrounds who write about exactly this phenomenon. They say, we look over America and we are so much fascinated about the Obama phenomenon but could the same thing, could the same dream come true in our own country?

MARTIN: Steven, what do you think?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, the debate, in a way, inside Europe is shall we also accept these larger values or work to accept them or to be accepted by the larger nation, or is our identity tied up in being from Morocco or Tunisia? I mean, how much do we keep ourselves separate because they keep us separate? It's like the old Jean-Paul Sartre saying about anti-Semite and Jew, which is, a Jew is who someone thinks is a Jew. And in a way, the arguments are very similar. It's not up to you how you're regarded. It's up to others.

MARTIN: Steven Erlanger is Paris bureau chief for the New York Times. We were fortunate enough to be able to catch him here in Washington on his visit to the city. Mely Kiyak is an author and a journalist in Berlin, and she joined us from Berlin. And I thank you both for joining us today.

Mr. ERLANGER: Thank you.

Ms. KIYAK: Thank you.

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