Africa-France summit: ‘Stop this paternalistic pseudo-cooperation’ say African youth

By Amalia Mjumbe
Posted on Tuesday, 12 October 2021 13:46

France Africa Summit
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a conference at the Benin stand to speak about restitutions of African heritage at the New Africa-France 2021 Summit in Montpellier, France, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (Sarah Meyssonnier, Pool photo via AP)

If one thought that the Africa-France summit in Montpellier was going to be a day of glad-handing and Afro-optimism, then one would've been mistaken. Although heckled by their fellow youth on the internet for accepting a golden ticket to France, the 11 young African speakers who directly addressed the French president pulled no punches.

France, and notably President Emmanuel Macron, touted this as an extraordinary event, bringing youth from five different spheres: sports, democracy, art restitution, climate issues and entrepreneurship.

The African side, which included some 3,000 young people from the continent, came to discuss the lopsided nature of Africa-France relations, and while pointed criticisms were not held back, some even brought along a number of solutions.

Many of their comments on France’s dance with African dictators, its poor use of vocabulary, paternalism and the French-backed CFA Franc elicited applause from the audience.

France and Africa: a dirty ‘cooking pot’

Arthur Banga, an Ivorian historian and political analyst at University Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan, couched his viewpoints in the future – in 2030.

“The CFA fund and its assorted reserve are far from your memories since we now have our own currency, a currency that is managed in total freedom,” he said, eliciting wild applause.

If the relationship between African countries and France was a cooking pot…it’s very dirty right now. It’s dirty with corruption, it’s dirty with abuses committed, with lack of transparency.”

Banga was referring to the currency used in Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo, and Guinea Bissau. With the exception of Bissau, all are former French colonies. The currency, which was tied to the euro for about 20 years, was originally instituted in 1945, one of the vestiges of ‘France-Afrique’.

Others used different sorts of metaphors to get their point across to Macron.

“If the relationship between African countries and France was a cooking pot,” said Raimwendé Elda Kwama, a young Burkinabé, eliciting a laugh from the French president, “it’s very dirty right now. It’s dirty with corruption, it’s dirty with abuses committed, with lack of transparency… and I invite you, Mr. President, to scrub it by using concrete actions. If you refuse to clean it, I will not eat. We will not eat,” she says, to wild applause.

Well-equipped with responses in the second half of the summit, Macron addressed the 11 youth who had been chosen to speak directly with him on stage. “I have the same feeling of injustice as you. The pot has to be washed, but we can’t forget the past and its wounds,” he said.

Deals with Dictators?

Some accused the French state of supporting dictators in their countries and called for a total military pullout of French troops on the African continent.

“I invite you to stop cooperating and collaborating with these president dictators in Africa,” said Senegalese journalist Cheikh Fall, to which the audience reacted with a big applause. “I invite you to stop this paternalistic pseudo-cooperation.”

However, this time round, Macron was less magnanimous in his response to the ‘dictators’ comment. “In your own countries, they won those democratic elections.”

“There are other countries that are getting harder, some of you have come from there, and in those instances, we channel financing through civil society,” he said.

Macron said he was against the now-deposed Guinean president Alpha Condé’s third mandate. “I condemned this publicly. On the coup d’état, I supported ECOWAS.”

As for boots on the ground, “There were terrorists in Bamako, always remember that we were asked to come,” he said.

Art restitution

One of the hottest topics was art restitution, where a number of art museum directors, including those from Quai Branly in Paris, spoke of the difficulty in restituting art when its provenance was not readily determined. They said when art was stolen or pillaged [from Africa], it didn’t necessarily come with paperwork to determine its origin.

Also on the panel were members of the Alter-natives collective, which is founded by art curators , who voiced their opinion about France restituting art.

“We were at the Elysée Palace and were told that it is up to Africans to request art objects be returned,” said Hadj Ahmed Assaba, 22, a young Frenchman of Algerian background who grew up in the St Denis suburbs of Paris.

“But there are objects that are not on display or in any catalog,” he said, in reference to their various trips to museums to look at their collections behind the scenes. “How do you know what is there?”

Ethiopian art curator for the national museum, Deseslegn Birara, who was invited but was unable to attend the summit due to visa problems, points to how two French scholars were in fact pioneers in establishing the importance of how a cultural setting at the place of origin gives artifacts their full meaning.

Mr. President, stop the philosophy lessons. Let’s be concrete. Let us now take measures which mark the turning points of this Africa-France relationship.

“Returning valuable heritages to their places of origin, theoretically, was French. In my opinion, the government of France is doing an excellent job to realise the theory in action,” he said via email.

Macron attempted to respond but was stopped when a member of the panel – Koyo Kouoh, director of Zeitz MOCAA, South Africa – told him that the continent has been in a forced marriage with France for at least 500 years.

“If we stay face to face or back-to-back, we will never move forward,” he said.

At the end of the panel session, Macron announced that Benin’s Treasures of Béhanzin, which were looted at Abomey Palace in 1892 during the colonial wars, would be returned to the country by the end of this month.

Calling a spade a spade

Macron said he had re-created this summit to give a voice to civil society and youth, but [clarified that] it was not a day of glad-handing. While he had an answer for nearly every comment, the general statement that France was paternalistic, discriminatory, and condescending was evoked in nearly every comment from the 11 youth delegates.

Despite this, those in attendance paid the price for coming to Montpellier on France’s dime. They were called out on Twitter and other social media platforms for acting like ‘sheep’ or ‘getting paid off’.

Translation: Does the France-Africa summit end in widespread humiliation? In wanting to mow down the sheep, we end up being devoured by a feline.

All in all, the 11 youth took advantage of the event to amplify what has been on the minds of many.

Perhaps Banga put it most succinctly to Macron: “Mr. President, stop the philosophy lessons. Let’s be concrete. Let us now take measures which mark the turning point of this Africa-France relationship, and for that, I invite you to dialogue – dialogue with the youth.”

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