Could Harlem Desir, France's First Black Socialist Party Chief, Become The Next Obama?

 @JaceyFortin
on October 26 2012 8:35 PM

For the first time ever, a black politician will take the reins of a major political party in France. If all goes well for him, 2022 in France could look a lot like 2008 in the United States.

Harlem Desir, 52, has been serving as the interim Socialist Party head since last year. So it was no surprise he was voted in as the official chief of the bloc that currently controls the parliament and the presidency under Francois Hollande during a party congress in the city of Toulouse on Thursday.

Analysts immediately began comparing the French politician to U.S. President Barack Obama, who broke down racial barriers to win an election for the most powerful political position in the U.S. in 2008.

But Desir is a long way from the presidential post. Hollande is likely to run on the Socialist ticket in 2017 -- and even the next Socialist presidential candidate, in 2022, won’t necessarily be Desir.

But he certainly has a fair shot, and that in itself is reason to keep a close eye on this ambitious politician.

Like Obama, Desir has a white mother and a black father. He has a bookish demeanor, although he once campaigned vocally against racial prejudices in France.

But this ardent Socialist has lost the charisma of his younger days -- and that’s where he and Obama differ. Talented though he is reputed to be, Desir is more s'il vous plait than “Yes We Can.”

Still, parallels between the two men will be impossible to ignore from here on out. That may be an advantage for Desir, who would do well to ride the coattails of one of America’s greatest narratives.

Obama’s 2008 election was an enormous event. The president was born before interracial marriage was fully legalized at a federal level: Obama’s parents married in Hawaii, which had never outlawed interracial marriages. Racial segregation was legal until just six years before Obama’s birth, and it persisted in practice well into his youth.

Even today, inequalities are rife. The Pew Research Center has reported that in 2009, the year Obama was inaugurated, “the median wealth of white households [was] 20 times that of black households” in the U.S.

Politics aside, it was an undeniably momentous event when a man of mixed race overcame such a long history of racial injustice to become the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.

If the same happened for Desir, it would be similarly monumental. Data on racial inequality are harder to come by in France, where an emphasis on egalitarianism results in a lack of data on ethnic differentiation -- it is actually illegal to gather statistics on citizens’ ethnicities.  

But it is estimated that only about 3 percent of the French population is black, and these (as well as Arab and Asian) citizens tend to face more societal challenges than their white counterparts.

Two major publications in 2010 -- one based on a poll conducted by the French market-research firm BVA and reported by the Telegraph, the other produced by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination and also reported by the Telegraph -- indicated racism is a significant factor in French society, and that the problem was getting worse as a partial result of economic crises caused by the European debt crisis.

Given this apparent disadvantage, as well as the lack of a large black community in France -- Obama’s victory was helped by his overwhelming popularity with African-American voters, who made up 12 percent of U.S. voters in 2008 -- it appears at the outset that Desir’s chances of one day taking Hollande’s place are slim.

But that can change. Desir’s first task is to work on being more likable -- and he knows it, as he admitted in a recent moment of candor.

“Whenever people talk about me, they say, ‘He was once young and handsome. Now he is serious and a pain in the arse,’” Desir joked, according to the Independent.

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