It had been six months since the new French president had settled into the Élysée Palace. On 28 November 2017, Emmanuel Macron was visiting the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Before an amphitheatre of students, he said: “France no longer has an African policy.”
This is part 7 of an 8-part series
The images are not the kind we’re accustomed to seeing at an Africa-France summit: a French head of state greeted in a white-hot room featuring impressive breakdance performances against a backdrop of hip-hop music and a considerable buzz generated by the rumour of the arrival of a former basketball star, Tony Parker. For the first time, on 8 October, the “new Africa-France summit” organised in Montpellier was held without the traditional ballet of planes and limousines of African heads of state, who had simply not been invited.
It was also the first time that the microphone had been handed to members of the community: intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, the diaspora and, above all, the continent’s younger generations. The participants talked about civic engagement and democracy, innovation and entrepreneurship, research and higher education, culture and heritage…
Respecting a commitment he made in Ouagadougou in November 2017, Macron’s intention was to place African and French civil societies at the heart of his strategy to rebuild the link between Paris and Africa, their relationship having stiffened over the decades. The designated linchpin of this reconstruction – to everyone’s surprise – was the Cameroonian intellectual [she just ID’s him by his nationality first then later refers to him as the “historian” but he is more widely known as a philosopher and intellectual so we can also say “philosopher and intellectual”] Achille Mbembe, a great critic of Françafrique [the historic French-Africa “arrangement”] if ever there was one.
The conversation between the two men had begun a few months earlier, through Irchad Razaly, a former diplomat based in Pretoria, and Franck Paris, Emmanuel Macron’s Africa advisor. The president sought to explain his approach and explore the basis for a possible dialogue with the African intelligentsia – those for whom the discourse is not limited to the catechism of entrepreneurship, start-ups and incubators.
For his part, Mbembe – who had always taken a great interest in the relationship between France and the continent – was curious to get a sense for the analyses and new directions the French head of state wanted to undertake. The intellectual considered them modest and unambitious.
Loss of influence
Things were accelerating in 2020. In a long interview with us, Emmanuel Macron took stock of his three years at the Élysée, going over the continent’s hot topics of the moment: the CFA franc, military presence, the fight against jihadism, colonisation, term limit.
I imagine that Emmanuel Macron and his advisors needed someone who was demanding, who was neither naive nor opportunistic.
On our site, Achille Mbembe responded to Macron in a scathing article denouncing a “marketing operation” in total contradiction with the latter’s stated desire to thoroughly revise Franco-African relations. He also criticised the French president for not taking into account the “vertiginous loss of influence of France on the continent since the mid-1990s”.
A few months later, the South African-based intellectual was contacted by the French ambassador and then by the Élysée Palace. After a series of discussions, Mbembe was given the task of drawing up proposals for the Africa-France summit in Montpellier. “I imagine that Emmanuel Macron and his advisors needed someone who was demanding, and who was neither naive nor opportunistic,” said Mbembe, who decided to involve “independent and respected African and diasporic personalities” in the project. This was followed by seven months of preparatory work, a cycle of 65 debates organised beforehand in twelve African countries and attended by some 4,000 people.
Criticism poured in, particularly from African intellectuals. The number one target of their attacks was Achille Mbembe, who was accused of having become a French stooge. Many saw in the summit “the consecration of the new Françafrique vassals”. Philosopher Charles Romain Mbele described the Mbembe committee as “a relatively small group of Western-trained thinkers serving as intermediaries in the trade of the cultural products of global capitalism on the periphery.” [this sentence is a bit hard to deconstruct]
Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo believes that the French president should have sent Mbembe to speak to the French rather than to Africans. The young Africans invited to Montpellier also took their share of criticism, often described as traitors or sell-outs and considered to be mere puppets.
Like the sociologist Fatou Sow Sarr, many regret that the Montpellier summit did not take place on African soil and see that fact as a sign of French arrogance and paternalism. “Emmanuel Macron should have made the trip rather than summoning hundreds of people to his turf,” she said.
African leaders sidelined
Another bad move was the sidelining of African heads of state. The writer Eugène Ebodé sees a “disqualification of politics” in this decision to exclude them and wonders if African intellectuals are the new foot soldiers in a war against Africa. For his detractors, Emmanuel Macron had gone too far.
A new historic bloc is trying to come together, far removed from Franco-African impulses, but also apart from a dishevelled form of pan-Africanism, a mixture of incantation, despotism and sovereignty.
This feeling was all the more pronounced as the summit took place in a context of mounting quarrels between Paris and [several] African capitals. “Admittedly, [Montpellier] did not bring [African] heads of state together,” Mbembe replied. “But it was not directed against them, either. Nor was it a summit in opposition to the African governments in place. If [African societies] rushed to Emmanuel Macron’s invitation, there is nothing to stop African leaders from having the same sort of unfiltered dialogue with their own people who are concerned about the same issue at home.”
In an article published on the website senegalactu.info, the Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop denounced “a false kick in the ant-hill”.
“The face-to-face meeting between Macron and African civil society would have been much more credible or even fruitful if there had at least been concrete signs of his willingness to change,” he wrote.
It is true that many suspected an electoral operation aimed at the diaspora, underlining the schizophrenia of Emmanuel Macron. If some wanted to see the sidelining of African presidents as a bold – almost transgressive – gesture by a head of state in his forties who has a hard time in the company of “African dinosaurs”, remnants of a time he did not know, others, just as numerous, were quick to express regret that the innovative principles displayed by Macron seem to be in direct contradiction with his actions.
Just like when he attended Idriss Déby Itno’s funeral to endorse his son’s seizure of power, all the while restricting the conditions within which African students could continue their studies or announcing a reduction in the number of visas granted to North Africans.
In reality, whether they come from France or from the continent, all these criticisms and positions testify above all to the complexity of the debate on the Africa-France relationship and the difficulty of conducting this dialogue with Africans. It is as though, for many of them, discussing anything with France means approving it without reserve.
Decolonising mentalities on both sides
Emmanuel Macron knows that transforming this relationship in a lasting way requires a lot of work. “It will be necessary to decolonise mentalities on both sides,” Mbembe said. This implies, writes Souleymane Bachir Diagne, “that the question [of this relationship] must be complexified by ceasing to look at it through the filter of France and its ex-colonies. We have to get out of that toxic face-to-face relationship, where we’re just staring each other down.”
Pessimists argue that this formula – attempted by Barack Obama in his era while harnessing the continent’s dynamic forces – did not produce great results. In any case, modernisation of the Africa-France relationship is now inevitable, with or without Emmanuel Macron.
Can we give African youth and civil society the impression that we want to hear from them and then immediately turn our backs? That would just confirm the worst assumptions of those who believe they are being instrumentalised.
For the moment, two of the 13 recommendations made to the Élysée Palace are on track:
- The fund to support innovation for democracy was officially launched on 8 October 2021;
- The feasibility report for the Maison des Africains was submitted to the French president on 16 March.
This is just the beginning, but it takes time to break old habits.
“A new historic bloc is trying to come together, far removed from Franco-African impulses, but also apart from a dishevelled form of pan-Africanism, a mixture of incantation, despotism and sovereignty,” concludes Mbembe. “The commitments expressed by the generation who were present in Montpellier are more in line with the horizon of an Africa with multiple zones, on the way to becoming one of the most enigmatic laboratories on the planet, and which rejects the universal beggar posture that has been pinned to it for so long. This Africa of a future that is already here is a whole that is transversally anchored to several worlds.”
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