08 October 2021 10:14
Last April, French President Emmanuel Macron attended the funeral of the Chadian head of state, Idriss Déby, giving his green light to the rise to power of the leader’s son who died in combat. On 8 October Macron himself, in Montpellier, will address the young Africans directly with whom he would like to reinvent Franco-African relations, bypassing the despots of the continent.
These two images summarize the dilemma of French politics, trapped by the heavy and cumbersome legacy of colonization and above all, paradoxically, of the postcolonial era. Today France fails to make itself understood when it says it wants to change things because reality shows the opposite. At the beginning of his mandate, in Ouagadougou Macron had appealed to young people, presenting himself as a president too young to have to take responsibility for a past that France is struggling to leave behind.
Four years and many disappointments later, Macron tries again with the Montpellier summit, to which the heads of state are not invited, accompanied by the recommendations of one of the most respected African intellectuals, the Cameroonian Achille Mbembe, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg .
What can be the impact of this meeting? Perceptions and images do not change overnight, and a conference is not enough to transform such a complex situation. It will be a long path for France, which for the moment seems to have more difficulties than trump cards.
The French political class speaks as if harsh and often racist words do not affect the image of the country
The main difficulty is that France relates to an Africa that, to be honest, it helped to create: the Africa of the Paul Biya, the autocrat of Cameroon in power since 1982 – when Macron was just five years old – and of the Denis Sassou Nguesso, who contends with Biya for the longevity record.
In an interview granted to Antoine Glaser and Pascal Airaud, authors of the book published a few months ago in France Macron’s African trap (Macron’s African trap), the president quotes Paul Biya. “I will not intervene militarily to deprive him of power,” says Macron, before adding: “It will take ten years to change things.” Meanwhile, the feeling remains that Paris is protecting the strongmen of the continent.
Among Mbembe’s proposals there is one that could really change things: the creation of a structure for assistance to African civil society, in order to help the most dynamic young people to realize themselves independently of authoritarian states. Sure, it involves risks, but the status quo presents at least as many.
France seems unconscious of another difficulty: the impact of the Franco-French debates on immigration, identity and history. The French political class speaks as if no one abroad listened to it, as if the harsh and often racist words did not affect the image of the country and as if one could reach out to Africa and keep it at a distance from the other.
A personal anecdote: this week in Paris, I was in a taxi driven by a person from an African country listening to the litany of xenophobic speeches of candidates in the upcoming presidential elections on the radio, starting with Eric Zemmour, far right. I asked amazed why he was following those broadcasts: “I want to know how they talk about us”, he replied. Something to think about as we listen to the beautiful speeches of Montpellier.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)