The Montpellier Summit : The New Look of Françafrique

A new kind of « Africa-France summit » is being held in Montpellier. Instead of gathering his counterparts from the continent around him, the French head of state has chosen this time to debate publicly with the actors of African civil society. This text is taken from a book edited by Koulsy Lamko, Amy Niang, Ndongo Samba Sylla and Lionel Zevounou : « De Brazzaville à Montpellier, regards critiques sur le néocolonialisme français ».  

In April last year, an “Africa-France Summit” of a new kind was announced. It will be held in Montpellier on October 8 and 9, 2021. The French President opted this time for a public debate with the African civil society rather than convening a meeting with his African counterparts. Those who initiated the discussion have repeatedly declared on radio and television that the debate will be open, if not stormy. This project, which is unusual in many respects, has been welcomed with some degree of laughter. While I understand the mocking critics, I choose to hold Achille Mbembe and his French friends to that. President Macron is obviously playing it safe with this format which was cooked up by some secret bucket shop of Françafrique. These people have accrued considerable experience during the time they operated in the shadows to keep Africans in shackles and at times even ensuring that the shackles did not hurt them too much. So there won’t be any taboo subject in Montpellier; even the “hard questions” - as the inimitable and inevitable Kako Nubukpo puts it - will be discussed. What happens next? These phony kicks at the hornet’s nest are precisely what makes such an operation so meaningful. It will only impress if Emmanuel Macron is sternly pressed, under the watchful eye of the cameras, to account for France’s military interventions in Africa, the CFA franc, its support for depraved psychopaths, not to mention the shameless plunder of the natural resources of so many poverty-stricken countries. Instead of being embarrassed by these derisive jabs, Macron will savor them like fresh milk. The worst-case scenario would involve Senegalese, Congolese, or Ivorian intellectuals, who are already widely suspected of being stooges, not acting out the comedy of a revolt entirely funded by the French taxpayer with a sufficient degree of “truth”. Emmanuel Macron, as one can suspect, is not interested in winning the game without taking risks. This young president has, on numerous occasions, shown how important it is for him to be perceived as someone who fears nothing and nobody, which incidentally, is not a sign of maturity in view of the position he holds.

Added to this, with only four months to go before a highly contested presidential election, there is no harm in Macron being perceived, especially by the French voters of African descent, as a man of goodwill and the only one willing to remodel the relationship between France and Africa. Yet Macron’s outstretched hand has been met with more than just skepticism. It has also sparked rather unusual reactions of anger in the Francophone sphere where people are generally resigned to the excesses of the Françafrique system. Most strikingly, intellectuals who are usually quite restrained or hardly outspoken about France’s African policy have this time felt literally pushed to the limit and voiced their feelings in very harsh terms.

Beyond the politics, everyone was unsettled by the profound contempt that underlies the French president’s approach. His manorial condescension for his peers, which has not been highlighted enough, is strikingly obvious. Everyone had indeed assumed that an Africa-France summit was a reunion of sovereign States and friends, rotating annually between the two continents. Naturally, this fiction never fooled anyone, but appearances were at least maintained. Macron is spilling the beans so to speak by making it clear that it is certainly France that has always summoned its subjects to chastise some, congratulate others, unify views on some delicate issues and, in the process, remind the rest of the world of its absolute dominance over the populations of distant lands. Macron is indeed no stranger to disrespecting African Heads of State. Let us recall his utterly abject, incomprehensible behavior - even seen through the odd lens of Françafrique - towards Burkinabe President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré at the University of Ouagadougou in November 2017. That surreal scene of a foreign president, loudly and intelligibly calling his host a moron in the presence of a crowd of giggling students, is something we would all rather forget. Kaboré, outraged and furious - anyone would have been! - immediately walked out. It was one of those moments when a trifle is enough to throw in the face of the enslaved, all the shame and shit of their condition.

That wasn’t all, because that same Macron later publicly lashed out at the presidents of the G5-Sahel, menacingly yelling at them before summoning them to Pau through the press. This was an order to report to a meeting that of course not even one of them dared disobey. Emmanuel Macron knew he could afford doing all that. In truth, there is something bewildering about the ease with which the Heads of State of the pré-carré put on the mantle of stooges or pawns that France almost distractedly moves around on the chessboard of its foreign policy. Not even one of them had a surge of pride and questioned Emmanuel Macron’s right to remodel, on his own, an event that was high on the international agenda.

Their exclusion is in fact a political sanction; suspected of secretly encouraging the enemies of France, they no longer even deserve to be spoken to. The fact is these African Heads of State may be what they are, and we may as well dislike them, nonetheless, we feel humiliated when we see them trampled on. The degrading treatment inflicted on them, in the open, can only stir up negrophobia - but perhaps we should call it afrophobia - which is becoming almost universal. That said, don’t we, African intellectuals, resemble our presidents much more than we want to admit? 

If we find the Montpellier summit so embarrassing, it is also because it brutally forces us to face up to this cruel truth. That Macron thought he could decide alone on the day, the place, the terms, and the players of the forthcoming discussion, is proof that he holds the view that Francophone African intellectuals, who have never given him any cause for concern, are irrelevant. It is Achille Mbembe himself, who with surprising candor, recounts a meeting at the Élysée during which his distinguished host said imploringly: “I am not being pressured enough! Put pressure on me!” In other words, it is the master who complains that the slave isn’t fighting hard enough.

To fool the naive, Achille Mbembe had to be portrayed as a fierce opponent of Françafrique, which is a pretty good joke. The Cameroonian historian has so far stood out for his rare and highly generic criticisms of France’s African policy and of the North-South disparities, using sometimes splendid but often obscure language that seems to have been polished and reworked to ensure that no one understands it. The legend of a Mbembe as an outspoken critic of Françafrique was destroyed by the man himself during a long interview aired on TV5 on April 3, 2021. In the interview in which he looks very uncomfortable, he puts into perspective his own criticisms of the French president and proposes - among other preposterous ideas - that the French ambassador, in various countries across the continent, should deign speaking to members of the opposition or that an “Institut des Mondes Africains” should be built in Paris. During the same interview, he expressed no opinion on the real issues underlying Françafrique, such as the CFA franc, Operation Barkhane or France’s numerous military interventions in Africa. When questioned about the Duclert report on French involvement in the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda, his confusion, I am sorry to say that, is nothing short of pathetic. That Achille Mbembe has not yet found the time to give a minute’s thought to the massacre of more than a million innocent people in the heart of Africa after thirty years is astounding. To put it bluntly, Mbembe’s attacks on France are nothing more than a joke.

The French president is perfectly aware of the kind of African intellectuals he will be facing in Montpellier. It is part of his job to be extensively briefed on such things and he certainly does not expect to be pushed to the ropes by Achille Mbembe. However, the co-founder of “Ateliers de la pensée” may have accepted to take on this task for reasons other than personal vanity. He has repeatedly stated his appreciation for some of Macron’s positive signals. Admittedly, he is the French president who seems least satisfied with the Franco-African status quo, judging by his courageous initiatives. In addition to the Duclert report on France’s involvement in the Rwandan Tutsi genocide, he commissioned another from Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy on returning the artifacts stolen by colonial France. (It should be noted, however, that in this particular case, he did not care about the opinion of the States, now independent, that were looted during the Occupation of the African continent). Likewise, it is commendable that Macron described, right in Algiers - in the middle of the French election campaign - the Algerian War as a crime against humanity, and asked Benjamin Stora to reflect on the clash of memories that is still the most visible scar of the war.

Many will not allow themselves to be impressed by these resolutions, dismissing them as a mere diversion tactic. They are probably right to argue that this is the least Macron could do. But he has in fact done it. Beyond the overall context and Macron’s likely political motivations as a future candidate for his own succession, no one could deny him credit for moves that are compelling enough in themselves. The only downside is that none of these files deal with the burning issues of the day. They focus on Rwanda, Algeria, or African ancient heritage. This means that for Paris the issue is certainly not to relinquish its colonial past and its neo-colonial present, but to exorcise the ghosts still haunting the French conscience.

In any case, gestures - and gesticulations even less - do not carry the weight of those actions that change the course of History. Even if he tries to look as a somewhat insane young man who is ready to make Françafrique implode, Emmanuel Macron is an ordinary French president, looking after his country’s strategic interests in a very thoughtful and methodical way. He is perfectly aware of his duty to perpetuate, using force or cunning, the control of so-called sovereign African States that are so fabulously endowed with natural resources. Nothing new under the sun, one might say, admittedly. Yet, a plundering system of this kind is nowadays only possible in Françafrique, especially under this shameless and increasingly uninhibited form. This is largely what allows France to hold its place in the community of nations. In fact, its political leaders and thinkers have sometimes made confessions on this very point. In 1957, François Mitterrand, then Minister of Justice, observed in Présence française et abandon: “Without Africa, France will not have a history in the twenty-first century”. Jacques Chirac also uttered similar words during his farewell to the Élysée. Italian Matteo Salvini was then simply beating down an open door when he angrily declared that without its hold on Africa and the CFA franc, France would be ranked 15th in the world. In truth, Salvini said out loud what the whole world - including France’s Western allies - was silently thinking. It would be hard to imagine France sitting on the Security Council without the “automatic” vote pool of its ex-colonies. It would also be even more difficult to comprehend why French is one of the working languages of the United Nations. These lines are being written at a time when, by concluding a brand-new Strategic Military Alliance (AUKUS), the United States, Australia and Great Britain are cruelly reminding France that it no longer has a place at the big table. So serious is the situation that Paris, which lost a $90 billion Australian nuclear submarine contract that was signed in 2016, recalled its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra in a reaction that was both spectacular and petty.

The French president who will take the risk of compromising such an advantageous situation hasn’t been born yet. That is why adaptability to new historical circumstances has been a formidable survival issue for Françafrique since its inception. It has always been able to do so, which is the secret of its longevity. Since it is scolded from all angles, each new tenant of the Élysée has seriously pledged, as soon as he was inaugurated, to “rethink the France-Africa cooperation”, and even to “re-balance it” or to “re-invent its fundamentals”. This is so recurrent a phenomenon that any definition of Françafrique should take into account this Élysée ritual, which is above all a tribute vice pays to virtue. It is so obviously immoral for a rich country to lay its hands on the resources of starving people that those who are guilty of such practices inevitably feel a sense of unrevealed shame. To some extent, such shame is central to the successive facelifts we have seen.

Françafrique, which itself was born out of a great tactical maneuver - namely, the so-called turnkey “independences” - has understood from the outset what readjustment means. No sooner had it emerged from a cruel war in Cameroon, been humiliated at Dien-Bien-Phu and in Algeria, than France found, in the words of Edgar Faure, a way to leave Africa in order to better remain there”. It must be said that this move was far from difficult for France. On the contrary, the colonized elites were so worried about its departure that French officials had to swear to them, with their hand on their heart, that all those talks of independence were a sham, and that the idea was above all for France – “the Fatherland of human rights” – not to be too visibly at odds with a fatal historical evolution. The story goes that this was not enough to reassure the Gabonese Léon M’ba, who valiantly resisted to the end this very strange white man’s idea of entrusting the management of a country to Black people. It is also said that the General de Gaulle in person had to step up so that the Gabonese - later called the Father of Independence! – stops annoying everyone by acting like a delighted colonized. Senghor was even more cynical. Disregarding the new political situation, he did not even consider it necessary to renounce his French nationality. In addition, he led a sovereign Senegalese State while remaining a member of the Michel Debré’s government until May 19, 1961, exactly a year after the official proclamation of Senegal’s independence on April 4, 1960.

Mongo Beti throughout his life - a life of countless struggles - wondered why of all the intellectuals who were colonized, the Francophone ones were almost always the most spineless. The question is still relevant today with Achille Mbembe’s acceptance to proudly play the Negro on duty in some southern French town. The notorious Baule Summit was another illustration of this constant aggiornamento effort. After the Cold War and the collapse of the Communist bloc, Mitterrand pushed through, via the “National Conferences”, changes that had become inevitable. This allowed France to keep control of the situation by promoting men who were supposedly new, but who had been groomed behind the scenes for a long time.

Emmanuel Macron, who has publicly deplored “anti-French sentiments” in Africa, knows that he has inherited a system that is in worse shape than ever. And in view of the reforms that must be made, he is counting on the new generation. In the campaign designed to “sell Montpellier”, young Africans are constantly being called upon, and Mbembe was heard railing against “old postures and old reflexes”. This “element of language”, as we now call it, aims to make all those who denounce French politics look like Manichean nihilists who are incapable of looking to the future or grasping the complex issues of our time. Modernist postures are always trendy. In this case, they are based on a cheap perspective. While Achille Mbembe is unaware of the real state of mind of young people in Yaoundé, Libreville or Brazzaville, the well-informed people with whom he is preparing the Montpellier summit are certainly not likely to be mistaken about it.

There is a growing body of evidence that belies the lazy preconceptions of a generation that came into the world well after the 1960s and therefore does not recognize itself in the slogans of their elders. During the March 2021 riots in Senegal, it was angry youths who, for the first time in several centuries of French presence in the country, targeted companies - Total, Orange, Eiffage, and Auchan - on the sole grounds that they were French. There is also a feeling that attachment to France is more likely to be expressed by politicized senior citizens, regardless of ideology, than by the younger generation, which is more attracted by the frank radicalism of the “France Dégage” movement, whose name and aims are unprecedented in the long tradition of struggle of the Senegalese people.

That being said, the face-to-face between Macron and the African civil society could have been more credible or even constructive if it had at least been possible to appreciate, on the ground, some tangible signs of his desire for change. In fact, from the moment we get down to the serious stuff, we no longer see a young, scrappy yet ultimately sincere idealist, but a cold monster. Macron is the one who, under the pretense of reforming the CFA franc, sabotaged the ECOWAS Eco project with the complicity of Ouattara. We must also talk about the end of Idriss Déby Itno. The assassination of the Chadian leader, which occurred in the midst of a controversy over the timeliness of the Montpellier meeting, immediately appeared to be a real test of Macron’s sincerity. Was he going to show a minimum of restraint, if only to avoid further embarrassing Achille Mbembe and all those who were hoping for a new era in our relations with France? This is a very naïve question. No French Head of State can afford the luxury of finesse when the fate of a country as important as Chad is at stake. Macron shamelessly rushed to Déby’s funeral to establish an illegitimate military junta headed by the son of the deceased. He was quite discomfited under the hot sun of N’Djaména, but in view of the enormous strategic implications, it was essential – as the writer Koulsy Lamko puts it – to “confirm Chad as a military camp” of Françafrique.  

What about the very recent coup against Alpha Condé? It would be hasty to dwell on this at this moment. In fact, rarely has a putsch given rise to so much contradictory speculation. However, what is fascinating is the speed with which people on social networks have concluded, without a shadow of a doubt - but without much evidence either - that this was another dirty trick from Paris. This says a lot about the deplorable image of France in Africa at the moment. It is hated enough to be considered capable of anything and therefore guilty of everything. The fact is that it has accustomed us to the worst. It would be a safe bet, for example, that most of the two hundred and four military coups recorded in Africa have taken place in the “pré-carré” with the French special services being at the helm each time to get rid of a lackey who had become unruly, and to put in place a new stooge, who may or may not be a military man.

Regarding military operations, the contrast is striking between the British, who never sent troops to their former colonies, and the French, who did so on so many occasions that one loses count of the exact number. Senator Pierre Laurent, a former national secretary of the French Communist Party, mentions forty-two military operations in Africa since the 1960s. In Que fait l’armée française en Afrique ? Raphaël Granvaud lists forty-nine interventions between 1957 and 2008, thirty-five of which were in the “pré-carré” alone. At the time, Mali, Libya, the Central African Republic, and Côte d’Ivoire, or even Rwanda, were not yet in the picture. The rhythm of these operations has clearly accelerated, which explains why, according to the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, the French army is breaking all records for military operations on the African continent. The latest is Barkhane - five thousand men - which Pierre Laurent, in his letter of March 4, 2021, to Defense Minister Florence Parly, described as “the most important since the Algerian War”. Barkhane is precisely the big deal of the same Macron who says he is calling for a sincere dialogue with the African people this October.

Like his predecessors, he has never shied away from justifying France’s military activism by citing the need to deal with terrorism. As is well known, Barkhane sprang from the Serval operation, which purportedly sought to protect civilians from a column of jihadists that was "threatening to conquer Bamako via Kona". The people of Mali were so convinced that was the case that they flocked to the streets in their thousands, waving little blue-white-red flags and shouting: “Long live France!” In early February 2013, François Hollande was in Timbuktu where he was given a triumphant welcome and did not hesitate to declare: “I have probably just lived the most important day of my political life”. It is hard to imagine that he did not enjoy a good laugh after uttering this statement, because the risk of Bamako being taken over by terrorists was deliberately exaggerated to justify an intervention in Mali that had been planned long before, in 2009 to be precise, under the code name of Operation Requin. This foundational lie is the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and Bernard-Henri Lévy’s widely propagated fable of Muammar Gaddafi “bombing his own people” in Benghazi.

In Mali, one of the core tenets of the French doctrine is that Bamako must not discuss anything with the jihadists. “We do not negotiate with terrorists” is the credo of Macron, who is reportedly about to open talks with the new masters of Kabul. What is clear is that his authority over states that were once so subservient is increasingly diminishing. The Central African Republic has slipped away from his grasp, and Mali, which has little confidence in Barkhane, is negotiating with “contractors” - who are not mercenaries - from the Russian company Wagner. Should this happen despite Jean-Yves le Drian’s threats, it will be a crucial moment in Françafrique’s progress towards its increasingly likely extinction.

This is the uniquely cynical and dwindling political leader that African civil society will be facing in a few days. Although some Anglophones and Lusophones are expected to attend, what role will be assigned to them is open to question, since they are so unfamiliar with the issues being discussed. Their presence in Montpellier is perhaps not surprising for those who know the old dream of certain French business circles to make some former British colonies taste the delights of Françafrique. With the help of Houphouët-Boigny, the Gaullist regime threw oil on the fire in Biafra with disastrous results. Paris took solace from this resounding failure by replacing, from 1973 on, Belgium in Rwanda, a country that it has ceased to control since Paul Kagame took power. Seeking to domesticate writers, artists and essayists from Nigeria, Kenya or Ghana is tantamount to biting off more than you can chew. France, now closer to its decline than to its most glorious days, no longer has the stature of a State capable of sustaining a face-off with an entire continent however unfortunate it may be.

So, good luck to those going to Montpellier. Having spoken at length with some of them, in some cases real friends, I can vouch for their participation as men and women of good will. Their leitmotiv is that an appeal for dialogue is not something to be rebuffed and that trying to make the French president see reason will cost them nothing. However, is there anyone who fails to see the illusion of a victim’s desire to convince the oppressor of the ignominy of their crimes? This is in fact an admission of absolute despair, because the most a hangman can afford is to slightly loosen his noose. Calling an hour and a half of talks between Macron and the elites of the former French colonial empire in sub-Saharan Africa a “summit” is an audacious misuse of language. It is true that its organizers have never said that it is intended to solve all problems, as if by magic. Can we expect at least a small step in the right direction? In fact, the question makes no sense: considering the real issues at stake in the relationship between France and what it shamelessly calls “the countries of the field”, the exercise in itself is unbearably superficial. In his Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire reminds us that “Europe is accountable to the human community for the highest pile of corpses in history”. Shortly before his death, the poet added: “Africa’s misfortune is to have met France”. It has taken a considerable toll of blood from Africa over the centuries. However, the issue here is not so much the colonial past as the suffering that Françafrique is still inflicting on the African people today.

A meeting such as the one to be held in Montpellier will only be meaningful when our countries are masters of their own destiny.

*****

This text by Boubacar Boris Diop is taken from an important collective work directed by Koulsy Lamko, Amy Niang, Ndongo Samba Sylla and Lionel Zevounou: "De Brazzaville à Montpellier, regards critiques sur le néocolonialisme français". The project brings together some twenty contributions and was initiated by the Collectif pour le Renouveau Africain (CORA).

It is entirely available online: https://corafrika.org/livres/

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