Macron’s modernism has neither escaped nor addressed France’s colonial history in Africa

Acknowledging it is a start. But if he truly wants to look ahead, Macron must learn to question his own power.

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Last month, Emmanuel Macron took to the stage in front of hundreds of students from the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to give his first speech of his tour in western Africa. Asked by a student what France could do about the country's problems with supplying electricity to its population, the French president replied: “You are talking to me as if I were still a colonial power, I don’t want to be responsible for electricity in Burkina Faso’s universities!”

He then pointed to the Burkinabe president, Roch Kaboré, saying: “That’s your president’s job!” Everyone in the room, including Kaboré, laughed, and Macron continued for a few seconds before realising the African leader was leaving his seat. “And so he’s leaving,” Macron joked. “Don’t leave! Stay here!”

The whole incident is uncomfortable to watch, and caused a backlash on Twitter where Macron was accused of causing a “diplomatic incident”. This prompted denials from both the the presidential palace (“We were joking, this is ridiculous!”) and Kaboré (“We can joke without having to worry about harming one another”). The reality, apparently, was that Kaboré had only left the room for a few minutes to go to the toilet.

But despite attempts to downplay the incident, it speaks to broader concerns about Macron's attitude toward parts of the African continent, and the way in which this brings back memories of France's colonial past.

The manner in which Macron addressed Kaboré was “over-familiar” and carried “colonial residue”, according to Rose Ndengue, a French expert in African history and political science at Paris Diderot University. One of the problems she identifies is Macron’s use of the informal “tu” to address Kaboré. In diplomacy, and generally in all professional contexts, the more respectful “vous” is preferred. 

“Would he say tu to the president of China?” Ndengue asks. “There are diplomatic protocols to respect. If he allows himself to say this, he can deny it, but he is perpetrating the colonial spirit.” She links it back to segregated America, where white people called black people “my boy” whatever their age, and to colonists who used garçon [French for “boy”] to refer to black men regardless of age.

Arthur Banga, a historian specialising in international relations and western Africa, said he had been “shocked at first” when he saw Macron’s joke. “Controversies around it show the complexity, sensitivity and expectations of French-African relations,” he added.

Between 1830 and the 1960s, France colonised African territories in what are now the Central African Republic: Chad, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Gambia, Cameroun, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Macron should be aware that France’s colonial past in Africa will remain an implicit but integral part of current relations, Ndengue says: “Instead of shrugging criticism off as if it were personal, French leaders should understand the mechanisms they reproduce.”

Banga agrees: “Macron must understand that every time he speaks in Africa, he speaks as the descendant of slave traders and colonists. This heavy past must bring him to speak with responsibility and courtesy.”

The French president has not ignored his country’s past. During his speech in Ouagadougou, he said that “the crimes of colonisation are incontestable and are a part of our history”. He claimed to be part of a generation “that does not come to Africa to tell [the continent] what it must do and what the rule of law is, but who will encourage those in Africa who want to assume responsibility,” adding that he had “not come here to tell you what France’s policy on Africa is… because there is no more French policy on Africa.” Visiting Algeria a few days later, he advocated a “reconciliation of memories” and described his policy as “neither denial, nor repentance”.

Yet his actions and promises carry remnants of France’s ugly past – not because he doesn’t mean well, but because he refuses to question his own political legacy. Ndengue speaks of a “tendency that many French presidents have” to distance themselves from colonialism because they were not born when it happened. “It doesn’t change the fact that colonisation has shaped France and French institutions systematically. The third republic of 1870, when the republican ideal consolidated, was also the moment of colonial expansion. The building of the French state happened simultaneously with the fortification of the colonial discourse”.

In Algeria, Macron got angry at a young audience member who asked him about his attitude towards French colonisation. “You're 25?” the president said, “but you haven't known colonisation! Why are you bothering me with this?”

That, according to Ndengue, is key to what's wrong with Macron’s approach: “He says, ‘We must look ahead, we weren’t born with colonisation so we must make a clean break with the past.’ But to look ahead, we actually must look where we come from, to avoid making the same mistakes, to correct what is problematic.”

Thus Macron's “neither denial nor repentance” disappoints her: “It means, ‘I deny you the right to think of the concrete, modern implications of colonisation and slave trade on French society’”. And that, to young people whose relatives have known colonial times, is ignorant at best.

Macron has decided to focus on the future, and that means addressing the youth. In a recent interview, he talked about how his own experience as a 23-year-old while visiting Nigeria “changed him”. Beyond the clichéd gap year talk, he mentioned discovering the “multiple youths” of Nigeria, which Ndengue sees as an acknowledgement of young Africa diversity and plurality.

But in Ouagadougou, he only addressed one group: the middle-class, educated youth of Burkina Faso. “He ignored the young people who were demonstrating against his visit outside the university,” Ndengue says. “What about youths from the working class? From rural areas? For someone who likes to say he thinks ‘complex’, it lacked complexity.” These exact questions can be asked regarding his domestic policy, too.

It’s not just African young people whose diversity and complexity Macron tries, but eventually struggles, to grasp. His comment on African women who “have seven or eight children each” was deemed deeply racist last summer. In Ouagadougou, he chose to address it again, to explain that he would defend African women’s rights to education and contraception, and would grant them scholarship to study in France to “give them the choice” of having children and when.

“This is a modernised form of colonial sorting,” wrote philosopher Elsa Dorlin in Le Monde. “To African women’s supposed extreme birth rate, the French state offers, as it always has done, a supposedly educative migration.”

Ndengue agrees: “It has the whiff of colonisation: the subtext is, ‘They’re backward’.” Banga adds that African households “have not waited for Macron’s comment” to reduce their birth rates: among the middle class they have considerably fallen, he says. To Ndengue, the French president is posing as a white knight saving African women, and in doing so, “he ignores African women’s capacity of action, just as the French republic did”. 

“He can try to shrug it off, but he is very marked by conception of colonisation, because so is the French political system”, she says.

So, how can Macron make things right? Banga hopes for “more transparency, more equity” in France-Africa relations. Ndengue believes it is necessary to try to refrain from commemorating the “great men” of French history who took part in colonisation – Charles De Gaulle, a clear inspiration to Macron, being one of them. “De Gaulle is only a great man to white France,” she says. “It all leads back to colonisation. We must look straight at history; be reminded that France is great because it dominated and massacred.”

A truly decolonial attitude would be to question the French political system – but that, she says, is something few in politics would be ready to do, because “it would mean questioning one’s own power”. And that's one thing Macron has shown little interest in doing.

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.