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Swiss immigrants pin hopes on Obama victory

What would Obama's election chances be like if he were Swiss, not American?

(Reuters)

If Barack Obama wins the race to the White House foreign communities in Switzerland will gain a huge boost of confidence, say immigrant associations.

However, the situation of immigrants in the United States cannot really be compared with that of Europe, where life is much tougher for black people, they say.

"The Democrat candidate's campaign slogan, 'Yes, we can', is also a signal for all immigrants living here," said Quan-Vinh Nguyen, president of the Fribourg section of the Forum for the Integration of Immigrants (FIMM).

Black communities need an emblematic figure and if they found that person at the head of the world's biggest power, they would feel all the more accepted, he added.

Ricardo Lumengo, Switzerland's first black parliamentarian has experienced this ever since he was elected to the House of Representatives last year.

Members of Switzerland's African community told him they felt "strengthened, supported and encouraged", explained the Social Democrat from Biel, who is originally from Angola.

"Some people told me that they are now taken more seriously, especially at work. They have also grown in confidence," he said.

"An election victory for Obama would also be symbolically important, said Lumengo.

"A black president in the White House would be a sign of openness for American society and send a strong signal to other countries," he said.

"Half African"

"Electing top officials based on their abilities rather than the colour of their skin is just another step in the long psychological process of normalisation," said Sabine Simkhovitch-Dreyfus, vice-president of the Federal Commission for Racism.

The same comment could be heard among members of Switzerland's African community.

Obama's lead in the polls "shows that mentalities have changed a lot in the United States," said Charles Tématio, a member of the Swiss Association of Cameroonian Students.

Yet the 26-year-old doesn't really think of Obama as a black man, but rather as someone of mixed race – "half African". The Democrat candidate has a Kenyan father and a white American mother.

"A victory by the Democrat would allow black Americans to identify themselves with him and enhance their legitimacy," said Malick Kane, 40, who has lived in the Lausanne region for the past 12 years.

And he hopes an Obama win would have far-reaching repercussions in Europe, given America's influence throughout the world.

Slow European mentalities

Most people, however, felt there were big differences between the US and Europe.

According to Tématio, the situation for black people in Europe, who are mostly immigrants, is much tougher.

"Mentalities are not as advanced over here as they are in the States", he noted.

Kane, who has a good knowledge of the US from two years spent there on a post-doctorate research programme, shares this point of view.

"Africans who live over there feel better integrated from an institutional perspective," he declared.

Switzerland only boasts a small handful of black parliamentarians. Apart from Lumengo at the House of Representatives, Carl-Alex Ridoré, who was born in Haiti, has held the post of head of the Saane district since last July.

In canton Neuchâtel, Nathalie Fellrath, who was born in Switzerland to a Gabonese mother, is a member of the cantonal parliament and Rupan Sivaganesan, from Sri Lanka, is a local MP in canton Zug.

According to Federal Migration Office statistics from the end of August, only three per cent of foreigners who are permanent Swiss residents come from Africa.

Although there are not enough Africans living in Switzerland for someone to be elected to the Swiss government, it's easy to imagine one of the seven cabinet members sporting a foreign name in the next 30 years, said Nguyen.

Swiss News Agency, Anja Germond

US Presidential election

Election day is Tuesday 4 November, 2008. The Democratic Party has chosen Barack Obama as its candidate - the first black person to be nominated by either main party. He has picked Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.

The Republican Party has selected John McCain, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran who, if successful, would be the oldest president sworn in for a first term. His choice for vice-presidential candidate is 44-year-old Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

The pattern in recent years has been that most of the states on the east and west coasts vote Democrat and most of the others vote Republican.

However, there are a number of states that could swing either way, polls suggest. These include Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and also Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia.

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