This week, French president Emmanuel Macron triggered a social media storm when a cropped video emerged of him using the word “civilization” in a speech about Africa, women and why the continent seems to have so many problems.
At the G-20 summit, Macron took a question from an Ivorian journalist on why there is no Marshall Plan for Africa’s development. Macron responded, “The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilizational [emphasis mine] today. What are the problems in Africa? Failed states, the complex democratic transitions, demographic transitions, which is one of the main challenges facing Africa.” He went on to say that women in some places in Africa have seven or eight children, which is “destabilizing” for the continent.
This is the second time in a week that the C-word has sparked backlash in a presidential speech on the international stage. Last week during his speech in Warsaw, President Trump sounded the white-nationalist dog whistle when he invoked Western civilization as supreme, citing the creation of symphonies and nuclear weapons. The word “civilization,” when used in discussions of economic or political development, often serves as a code, implying that a nation’s successes and failures can be attributed to immutable, essentialist characteristics of its people. There’s a long, shameful history of nations invoking civilizational difference to justify colonialism, war and racial oppression.
To be fair, Macron’s full remarks sounded like what one would hear in the halls of a garden-variety Western international development agency. He emphasized that some countries are experiencing remarkable economic growth even as they suffer from trafficking, terrorism and other problems. Still, Macron’s statements are reminiscent of the mission civilisatrice, the civilizing mission of French colonialism. As Siddhartha Mitter put it in Quartz, “Macron’s statements fall into a tradition of condescending statements about Africa that point to every cause of the continent’s difficulties other than colonialism and its enduring trace.”
Macron has been knighted as the centrist in shining armor fighting for liberal values —having vanquished the nakedly xenophobic presidential campaign of far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the national election earlier this year. Macron is clearly no Le Pen or Trump, but his patronizing remark, couched in conventional World Bank parlance about demographic transitions and public-private partnerships, reveals a simplistic “white man’s burden” philosophy underlying much of the West’s thinking about Africa. Technocratic racism guised as development policy can be much harder to challenge than populist bellowing from Trump or Le Pen.
Macron could just have easily used his speech to illuminate the ways in which France’s post-colonial presence continues to weigh on Africa’s development. He could have started by addressing two other C-words: CFA franc and counterterrorism.
One of the more controversial features of French-African relations is the CFA franc, the common currency of 14 former French colonies in West and Central Africa, which was created in 1945. The CFA franc (“CFA” stands for the French version of “financial community of Africa”) is pegged to the euro at a fixed rate determined by the French treasury. African states and development economists have long complained that the CFA franc has held back economic development in these countries, since the introduction of the Euro has created structural current account deficits in CFA franc countries.
Further, under the CFA franc regime, excess foreign exchange reserves from these countries are held in special “operations accounts” in the French treasury. Some critics characterize the CFA franc arrangement as a form of monetary imperialism. Le Pen called for the end of the CFA franc, saying that she agreed that it hindered African development. Macron has said he would leave it up to Africans to decide whether to leave the currency.
As for counterterrorism, France has increasingly militarized its security policy toward the continent, taking the lead on military interventions in the Sahel and Sahara regions and in Central Africa. France has a sprawling network of military bases across the continent, another legacy of colonial days. France drew scorn from the internationally recognized Libyan government last year for admitting for the first time that it had stationed special forces in the eastern part of the country without coordinating with Libyan authorities. French peacekeepers have been embroiled in scandal in the Central African Republic, after allegations that troops sexually abused children while deployed there in 2013. No charges have been brought against the French soldiers.
Rather than criticizing Africans’ alleged failings, and instead of sustaining a culture of colonial dependency, Macron could help African nations build self-sufficiency. He could, for example, press for the opening of French and European markets to African goods and exports. And for all of the money and effort that France has spent on militarizing its engagement with the continent, it has woefully under-invested in supporting democracy and good governance and has a history of supporting dictators. This might help to explain why so many former French colonies are wracked by civil unrest and governance vacuums. C’est dommage, that Macron, France’s youngest leader since Napoleon, didn’t use his platform to acknowledge France’s problematic role in Africa’s past, and open the door for new ways of thinking about Africa’s future.