The French president’s casual slur against Francophone Africans over birth control bodes ill for a progressive French presidency. Plus ça change.
France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, when asked in a press conference at the G20 summit in Hamburg why there was no Marshall plan for Africa, explained that Africa had “civilisational” problems. He added that part of the challenge facing the continent was the countries that “still have seven to eight children per woman”.
The condemnation online was swift and relentless. The US political scientist Laura Seay summarised the problem many had with Macron’s words in a series of tweets: “It is RICH for a French president to criticise Africa this way,” she said. “France’s colonial theory was called the ‘mission civilisatrice’, which purported to bring all the benefits of Frenchness to the continent. Part of the ‘mission’ was the institutionalisation of Catholicism as the official religion of French colonial territories in Africa.”
“We see all kinds of effects of the ‘mission civilisatrice’ in Francophone Africa today,” she continued, “like the church’s teaching against contraceptive use, which most African adherents take very seriously. Do women in Francophone Africa want to give birth to far more children than they can reasonably feed, clothe, and educate? I doubt most do.”
Macron’s words had commentators asking whether the “honeymoon” was now over as a chink appeared in the Golden Boy’s armour, but perhaps the signs were there all along. While still campaigning for the presidency, Macron called France’s colonial history in Algeria “a crime against humanity”. But this centrist politician quickly changed his mind when his rebuke of France’s brutal past was met with criticism at home. In a speech in the south-eastern city of Toulon, Macron apologised for having hurt voters’ feelings, and dumbed down his accusation to speak instead of the need for France to face its “complex past”. But what about the feelings of the millions of Africans you casually slur, Monsieur Macron?
It seems that despite his youth and vitality, the new president is sticking to a very old line when it comes to France’s position on Africa. Take Nicolas Sarkozy, who on a visit to Dakar, in Senegal, in 2007 said that “the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future. The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words.” Delivered with the poetry you would expect from a Frenchman, erroneous and haughty as hell – but also plain old racist. I would say that, in large part, Africans haven’t entered into history because Europeans keep writing them out of it. But that’s for another day.
Many will decry the comparison to the harder-right Sarkozy. And granted, Macron’s full response in Hamburg, while rambling and hamfisted, is not too dissimilar from what a classical development economist might say: stable government, corruption, population boom as economic burden. But for a leader whose election victory was imbued with the promise of radical change, sounding like a development economist is exactly the problem.
Macron’s statements make the blood boil not because they are novel but because they make no mention of the root causes of the challenges of which the president speaks. Gone is the lucid, welcome admission that France’s role in its former colonies was anything but laudable. He now says nothing of the fact that France’s future is indelibly tied to that of its former colonies, and that the relation between the two remains largely neocolonial: Francophone Africa still trades heavily with France, and French companies – particularly in the extractive industries – have a strong presence on the continent.
More controversially, France’s relationship with its former colonies – known as Françafrique – is perhaps best captured by the use of the CFA franc currency, which offers little benefit to the Francophone nations. As the Cameroonian journalist Julie Owono has written: “CFA zone countries have to deposit 50% of their currency reserves into a so-called operations account managed by the French treasury.”
Militarily, France also continues to embroil itself in issues of state in its former colonies, but is often silent on human and civil rights abuses. Again, look at Cameroon, where the strongman Paul Biya imprisons opponents with no charge, meets peaceful protest with violence, and turns off the internet in order to silence his people – all of which has elicited not a peep from the French regime.
The test of Macron’s presidency is his foreign policy, particularly on Africa. At the moment he’s doing a fine job of proving he is cut from the same cloth as every leader who has come before him: adopting a paternalistic tone and happy to moralise, while profiting from the carnage France helped create – to which, at best, he turns a blind eye.