Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The rightwing subversion of egalitarian discourse

Since the rise of Obama in America, the question concerning Europe’s immigrant children has come increasingly to the fore. Will Europe produce prime ministers or presidents who are themselves a reflection of the cultural diversity of European nations? To be sure, the Americans have outclassed us in the past few months. The euphoria that follows every foreign visit by the American president is not unlike the heady days of the Beatles. But this exaggerated optimism vis-a-vis the Obama phenomenon is more a reflection of a world in despair, screaming out for an alternative to the politics of destruction than a belief that someone who transcends traditional racial codes can actually make a fundamental difference to how the world is run. Nevertheless, it is not just Obama’s race and cultural heritage that is different; his rhetoric and demeanour also mark a significant break with the past. Europe’s reception of Obama has manifested a serious contrast with his predecessor. In France, for example, the Bush years nurtured an implacable anti-Americanism throughout the French political scene. However, this anti-Americanism, widespread throughout Western Europe, was not directed at the essence of what the United States could or should be; rather it a reaction to what the US was at that time under the bellicose unilateralism of the US administration. The ‘anti-American’ accusation has too often been used by both the American right and their supporters here in Europe to insinuate an irrational antipathy to all things American among those opposed to certain if not all aspects of US foreign policy. Now, however, the tide has definitively turned. On a symbolic level, America has taken the lead internationally in terms of racial and cultural diversity. The question now is, will Europe follow suit and when will this happen?

The nomination of Rachida Dati as French Minister for Justice in 2007 has made her one of the most talked-about high-profile ministers in recent French history. The daughter of Moroccan and Algerian immigrants, the second eldest in a poor family of eleven children, Rachida Dati is indubitably a symbol of cultural integration. However, her appointment to the ministry of justice has been fraught with controversy, malicious rumours and hyper-mediatisation. Dati has an extremely strong personality. Academically brilliant, her determination to succeed knew no bounds. While she was a student in economics, for example, she tapped into every possible social network in order to meet the kind of people who could open doors for her. Her indomitable ambition paid off. At a French-Algerian cultural event in Paris she met the wealthy and influential Jean Luc Lagardere, whom she managed to persuade to support her professional advancement. After spending a few years working as an auditor for Lagardere’s company Malta Communication, she entered the prestigious École Nationale de Magistrature to become a magistrate, again with Legardere’s financial assistance. Upon leaving law school, Dati worked her way up the social and political sphere becoming the spokesperson for Nicolas Sarkozy during his presidential campaign in 2007. After his election as president, Sarkozy made Dati Minister for Justice in his new government. Dati’s unbridled ambition, Sartorial elegance, sometimes shameless opportunism, together with a peremptory if not downright dictatorial approach to legislative reform, have raised the eyebrows of many political analysts in France. But apart from her shortcomings as a politician-and here she differs decidedly from Obama in having no real political convictions- she is in a sense the symbol of the modern European Muslim woman. She recently gave birth to a daughter. But she remains unmarried and refuses to disclose the identity of the father. This is, given her Muslim background, a radical change with the past.

What the recent accession of minority races and cultures in the USA and Europe to the highest levels of political power has shown is that political affiliation and race are no longer linked. Perhaps one of the most right-wing presidents in US history nominated two black people to the post of Secretary of State. Similarly in France under Sarkozy, the racial diversity of the government has been significantly widened. This means that racial and socio-economic equality are no longer inextricably linked. This also means that the distinction between left and right wing politics has been in a sense obfuscated by right-wing governments’ promotion of minorities. Yet the struggle for racial equality was traditionally never on the right-wing agenda. The worrying issue here is that this new right-wing consensus on racial equality has resulted in an adroit side-stepping of the question of socio-economic equality, so when we talk about equality we no longer understand what it really means.

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