Germany’s Rachida

A while back I said I was optimistic about the way the centre right in Germany was becoming more tolerant and less xenophobic. So when I arrived in Berlin last weekend on a visit, I was interested to see the debate that had been sparked by the appointment of Aygül Özkan as minister for social affairs in the Christian Democrat government in Lower Saxony. Özkan, a 38 year-old lawyer from Hamburg (where the Christian Democrats are in a coalition with the Greens) and the daughter of a so-called Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, was yesterday sworn in as the first minister of Turkish origin (not to mention the first Muslim minister) in a state government in Germany. It seems extraordinary that it has taken until 2010 for a member of Germany’s biggest ethnic minority to reach such a position at even a state level – her appointment is having about the same impact here as that of Rachida Dati (who was a minister in the national government) did in France. Nevertheless, however late it is, this is progress.

Özkan’s appointment is an indirect consequence of the change in German citizenship law that was introduced under the “red-green” government nearly a decade ago. That led to a greater number of second and third generation Turkish immigrants becoming German citizens, which in turn meant they could vote. As a result, German political parties are now competing for the votes of Germany’s Turkish population. It is interesting, however, that should be the Christian Democrats who were the first to appoint a minister of Turkish origin. It suggests not only, as I said before, that the German centre right is starting to accept that Germany is a multicultural country, but that it may in some ways have overtaken the centre left. “There are two parties in Germany who are seriously promoting migrants in Germany,” Cem Özdemir, the Greens’ co-leader (and the first ever Turkish-German member of the German parliament) told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on Sunday. “The Greens are one and the Christian Democrats are the other”. The subtext: look out for more “black-green” coalitions.

UPDATE 4/31/10:  Özkan has already been in trouble with the conservative wing of the Christian Democrats after she suggested in an interview that religious symbols, including headscarves but also cruxifixes, should not be allowed in state schools. Spiegel has a good analysis (in German only) of the “love-hate relationship” between the Christian Democrats and the Greens and the prospects of a “black-green” coalition in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s biggest state, where elections take place on May 9.

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