During a visit to Burkina Faso, French president Emmanuel Macron presented his vision of a new era in French-African relations – one that leaves imperialistic, neo-colonialist attitudes in the past and invests in the hope and potential that the African youth embody. But the president’s speech showed how difficult it is for former colonial powers to shed their paternalistic tone, despite his attempt to identify with the young African population for whom a colonised Africa is a thing of the past.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s three-day official visit to three African countries in late November 2017 culminated in an address to an audience of students and youth at Joseph Ki-Zerbo university in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. In front of the President of Burkina Faso, the President of the university, several high-ranking political figures, and an assembly of excited spectators, Macron pronounced words that no French president had ever uttered in front of an African audience:
“I am not going to come here and tell you that we are going to give a great speech to turn over a new page in the relationship between France and Africa. Nor have I come here to tell you what France’s African policy is, as some may claim. Because France no longer has an African policy!”
Throughout his speech, Macron’s strategy was clear: address the painful past of colonisation, but focus on the future. Focus on the youth. As he repeated, he and his audience belong to the same generation – one that has never known a colonised Africa. He wants to work collaboratively to surpass the barriers of the past. He did not tiptoe around the fact that colonisation crimes are crimes against humanity and forever part of French history. In this sense, he went further than any of his predecessors in taking responsibility for France’s past and the effects these crimes have had on several generations of Africans, including the youngest one, to which the president identified. He clearly intended to mark a new era in France’s foreign relations: one that no longer looks at Africa as a “continent of crisis and misery”, as he said, but as a continent with potential, strength, and a distinct identity.
Following the French president’s vision of this new relationship, he spoke of the future relation between the European and African Unions – one where the EU and the AU work together on an equal footing to address their common challenges. Because, he claimed, if Africa fails, Europe will face “the same difficulties” in terms of migration and influx of refugees. Therefore, increased cooperation is mutually beneficial. To this end, among others, Macron stated his commitment to reach the target of devoting 0,55% of France’s GNI to development aid by the end of his mandate. However, if one compares this to the UN’s 1970 target, when member countries committed themselves to allocating 0,7% of their GNI towards foreign aid, this is still insufficient.
As he explained, Macron’s ambition for the future of development aid is for it to be more targeted, more inclusive, and closer to on-the-ground needs – African needs. This announcement, however, is not exactly an innovative breakthrough: it has been many years since donor countries realised that a lot of resources directed at supporting development are ineffectively spent and wasted. While this realisation has already led to the dawn of new approaches to foreign aid, what is needed for Macron’s ambitions to be fulfilled is a comprehensive paradigm shift of the entire development industry – a considerable task that he has now committed himself to delivering .
The president did present a new initiative, which was one of his notable campaign promises to renew French-African relations: the creation of the so-called Presidential Council for Africa, in August 2017. Made up of 11 members chosen from the African diaspora in France, they are often bi-national, with an anchor both in France and their African country of origin. Reflecting Macron’s government, the Council will consist mostly of young people who can engage with African civil society. The aim? To show France’s willingness to widen its points of view concerning its cooperation with Africa by supporting new sectors such as business, sustainable development, and even activist art – in sum, to support a “new Africa”. Above all, the creation of this Council is designed to embody a break with the remnants of France’s neo-colonialist “Africa policy” – as Macron repeated, he is not here to “give lessons”.
In between commitments to increase support and create partnerships for youth, students, entrepreneurs, job creation and climate change adaptation, Macron nonetheless advised his audience on how Africans should address two major challenges: religious extremism and rising population numbers. He called upon his audience not to let people convince them that, in the name of religion, they can dominate and even persecute others who believe otherwise. He exposed two solutions to fight extremism – attacking extremist religious organisations’ financing channels, and investing in education. To this end, he committed France to train teachers and build education strategies with all African countries that want it. How he is planning on drying out extremists’ financial resources, he did not elaborate on – neither did he seem to think that Africa can effectively train its own teachers to educate children and youth about religious extremism, since he offered them French training.
Using education as a segway into the subject of gender equality, one of Macron’s arguments to educate girls and invest in women’s rights was that, aside from being a good thing in and of itself, it could help reduce the number of children per woman and thereby reduce the risk of overpopulation. His wish is to safeguard girls’ and women’s ability to choose; to make sure that the high number of children per woman in Africa is always and solely based on the woman’s choice. A girl should be free to pursue education, find a job, start a business, and make that choice alone. These girls should therefore be free to shape their future, including the right to choose not to be married at 13 or 14 and start having children.
“Not because the French president wants it – because you want it. We must have this discussion of freedom and choice, the one that goes with the democracy that you have chosen”, he told the people of Burkina Faso.
Therefore, Macron plans to use private financing from France to open quality clinics in Africa. How the presence of clinics will empower girls and women to make these choices, he did not say. Making education, freedom, and child-bearing solely about women’s ability to choose does not reflect the complex problems of exclusion and discrimination that can ensue. Macron seemed to skate over the fact that thousands of African girls and women cannot freely make these choices due to, among other reasons, lack of knowledge about and access to birth control; the stigmatisation of the use of contraception; the coercion by families and communities to marry at a young age and have children; persistent patriarchal cultural values and institutional barriers that may prevent women from choosing to have fewer children later in life while pursuing an education or a career. Not to mention that making such a choice could endanger the woman’s safety and expose her to conjugal or gender-based violence. Macron’s emphasis on women’s freedom of choice carefully avoids the difficult discussion of the cultural and social impediments to gender equality that exist in Africa, but also worldwide. Recent revelations of sexual discrimination, harassment, and assault, liberating women’s voices in the entertainment industry, but also women and girls from all walks of life, show that gender inequality is a global problem. The question of a woman simply being free to make a choice for herself is not a guarantee anywhere, be it Africa, France or anywhere else.
French news coverage of Macron’s intervention portrayed it as a success. The young people interviewed appreciated his approach of focusing on their common generation and its strengths, and he did address France’s colonial history in Africa like no other French president had done before, mentioning even the symbolic power of the French language still being used in many African countries. However, by highlighting the fact that French-speaking Africans have made this language their own, that it is the language of their poets, artists and singers, he recognised the multiple dimensions of post-colonialism, and understood the need for France – and other former colonial powers – to see Africa with new eyes, to see it for what it is today. And to support it in becoming what it could become tomorrow.
Newspapers from Burkina Faso, however, painted a different picture. Le Faso pointed out that Macron purposefully avoided certain aspects of France’s African policy of the past, such as the military cooperation with dictatorships. By repeatedly stating that he was not here to give lessons, he sought to exonerate current and past French authorities from the political and economic situation of several francophone African countries. What sounded like a “new” French-Africa relationship seemed like a way to mask France’s responsibility to everything that the same youth he came to celebrate is currently fighting against, such as unequal redistribution of resources or corrupt institutions. To some, Macron’s communication seemed arrogant, and his intervention, delivered in a professoral tone, was merely words without actions to back them up.
Getting rid of the remnants of its imperialistic self will take more for France than electing a new, young president who has never known a colonised Africa. While it is extremely important to acknowledge the past and look to the future to find concrete, adequate solutions that can contribute to a stronger, safer, more equal and more independent Africa, the French president must not remember that France’s colonial rule ended just a few years before his birth. It takes more than 50 years and saying “enough about all this colonisation talk, let’s move on and focus on the youth” to heal wounds and address the deep impact that decolonisation has left on the countries and the people that were “freed”. However, if well managed and executed, the commitments that Macron made before the students of Joseph Ki-Zerbo university could really pave the way for a better, more equal relation between France and its former colonies.
During the presidential campaign in France, Macron embodied change, dynamism, hope, and belief in the future. While his popularity level has since dropped significantly in France, will he be able to inspire the same dynamism among Africans, whilst remembering to remain within the confines of his role as the president of France, not its former colonies? By conveying a message of respect and trust, and by promising his support, the president wants to show that he takes his country’s responsibility towards Africa seriously. What remains to be seen , then, is whether the people of Africa will be satisfied with this attempt to start wiping the slate clean.