AFRICANGLOBE – The French army’s recent intervention in Mali has sparked fresh debate about the relationship between France and Africa. Some detractors passionately advocate for the abandonment of the long-established France-Afrique1 relations, while others feel that preserving these ties is in Africa’s best interest.
But exactly what is the current relationship between France and Africa?
Is there a dangerous historical nostalgia at play while both regions deny the current realities? Regardless of our various inabilities to see through the fog of colonialism or geopolitical and economic interests, if we could clear the slate do we even know what we would want future relations to be between France and Africa?
President François Hollande’s recent speech before the Chamber of the National Assembly of Senegal revealed a new paradigm with which the French President would like to organize French and African relations moving forward.
To better understand François Hollande’s speech it is useful to compare it to the positions of his predecessors, particularly Nicolas Sarkozy.
In his 2007 speech in Dakar, Senegal, Sarkozy remarked that Africa “never entered into the history.”
Many African intellectuals wondered what Africa and what history the former French president was referring to. He clearly was not speaking of human religious history, for if he had he would surely recall that it is in Africa that the oldest Church known to man is located (Ethopia). He must not have been speaking of the history of human educational institutions, for he would have noted that it was in Africa that the world’s first great universities were created (Timbuktu). He was also clearly not speaking of the human history of finance, for he might have referenced humanity’s first historically recorded financial crisis – with the king Mansa Musa, who, during his pilgrimage to Mecca, took with him a great amount of gold, leading to a decline of its course in the Middle East.
By making such a declaration, Sarkozy was clearly referring to a myopic, self-serving, strangely curated version of history. He was immediately taken to task -African intellectuals reminded Sarkozy that Africa was not only the cradle of civilization, but that it has established a trade with the rest of the world since antiquity.
By contrast, for some African leaders and intellectuals, Hollande’s 2012 speech in Dakar marks the end of France-Afrique. For others it marks the establishment of a new France-Afrique. Hollande acknowledged a somewhat more complete understanding of global history and even gratitude for Africa’s role in certain historical moments. For example, he referenced the contributions of African fighters, honoring African soldiers for the integral role they played in the liberation of France during the Second World War.
This acknowledgement of gratitude vis-à-vis Africa could be regarded as a calculated new strategy. Beyond the truths contained in his speech — namely France’s responsibility in crimes such as the repression of Senegalese soldiers (who participated at the second world war) at Camp Thiaroye (military camp in the suburb of Dakar, Senegal) and the questions of Africa’s place in history – Hollande’s remarks invite us to look at the authoritarian paternalistic dimension of French-African relations.
Supporters of both the old and new France-Afrique ideology increasingly strategize in hopes of obtaining public accolades and compensation from those who wield political influence or economic power.
It is important to keep in mind that, because the traditional power relations of France-Afrique are authoritatively asymmetrical, heavily slanted towards the dominant view of France, there are monitoring devices in place to further bolster manufactured sociopolitical and cultural mechanisms of domination.
In addition to physical wars, the war over the popular imagination is essential for any politician. Because of the dominant and psychological means by which the popular imagination is conquered, people are generally ill-equipped to resist, let alone challenge the assault or even notice that it is happening. This would explain why a large number of intellectuals — both African and European — perpetuate France-Afrique without knowing it.
These intellectuals are found in the major international institutions, universities and large companies, sometimes denouncing France-Afrique, while unknowingly supporting it at the same time.
In some cases, for instance, they advocate for policies promoting the privatization of public enterprises in Africa, which often result in the takeover of a country’s lucrative assets by French companies (For example, the privatization of Sonatel in Senegal).
It is obvious today that much of the ruling class in Africa waits for and is exclusively receptive to the voices (instruction really) of the former colonial lord. How many of our intellectuals, African professionals recognized in developed countries, must be ignored by our nations’ leaders? How many of them have offered, in vain, their insights, skills, and services to help resolve the problems facing our people, without so much as an acknowledgment.
Our African leaders, instead, prefer to consult with the “experts” of the former colonial power.
In this context, Hollande’s speech could help some of the ruling class in Africa, seeking recognition, to compensate or account for their lack of confidence. His speech allows, if only for a moment, the appearance of graciously ceding territory — France “generously” cedes a point to Team Africa.
Hollande’s speech offers some political cover, a small consolation prize of sorts, for those African elites who seek, consciously or subconsciously, to build safe ties with France. Though there is much to be critiqued in both Sarkozy’s woefully misinformed comment and Hollande’s slight improvements, what happens if we all take a deep breath, put aside the past for a moment, and consider the future.
France-Afrique: An Outdated Relationship
If we are to design a new future beyond the traditional France-Afrique relations, we African intellectuals, political leaders and change makers are responsible for finding our own models. We have an imperative to design education systems suitable for our development.
Africa’s isolation in world trade today is in some way its strength.
When we talk about sustainable development, climate change, and other pressing global issues, Africa seems to be the island that preserves humanity from the insanity of men. It is also one of few continents not devastated by the recent financial crisis.