Yes, Macron’s “civilizational” Africa statement is problematic but it’s also very French

Macron with the presidents of Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger during the G5 Sahel Summit in Bamako on July 2.
Macron with the presidents of Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger during the G5 Sahel Summit in Bamako on July 2.
Image: Reuters/Luc Gnago -
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Of course what Emmanuel Macron said was racist.

At a press conference at the G20 summit in Hamburg, on July 8 he was asked about a “Marshall Plan for Africa.” The president gave a disquisition on Africa’s “real” problems – among them, in his view, demographics. The continent’s true challenge was “civilizational,” including failed states, shaky democracies, trafficking, extremism, and population growth. Later in his reply—the effect was compounded in a spliced video that circulated widely—he pointed again to demographics. Where there are “7 or 8 children per woman,” he said, spending billions is pointless.

It wasn’t the first time. On June 1, in a conversation in Brittany about fishing boats, kwassa-kwassa came up; these are vessels used in the Comoros islands, including by migrants seeking to reach Mayotte, a French overseas possession—that is, a colony. “But kwassa-kwassas don’t fish much, they deliver Comorians,” the president joked, using a turn of phrase (ils amènent du comorien) that implied goods, not people.

Earlier this year, a book by scholar Françoise Vergès, Le Ventre des femmes, revisited forced abortions and sterilizations in Réunion, another French Indian Ocean territory, in the 1970s—the era when French women secured reproductive rights, thanks to activists and the late minister Simone Veil. Macron’s comments on Africa—that undifferentiated mass—are of a piece with those practices in Réunion decades ago. And they share with his kwassa-kwassa remarks the idea of Black bodies as burdensome and invasive.

Macron’s remarks fall into a tradition, as well, of grandiloquent and condescending statements about Africa that point to every cause of the continent’s difficulties other than colonialism and its enduring trace. In a Dakar speech in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy observed that “the African has not fully entered history.” Macron’s “civilizational” comment is similarly obtuse, with the added perversion of echoing the mission civilisatrice, the “civilizing mission” at the core of French colonial ideology.

One might note that “7 to 8 children” is an extreme, observed only in Niger, and that some analysts believe is overstated. There is a long history of population panic and its use in racist ideology. Certainly, large families may be an concern in specific socio-economic settings (in Africa or elsewhere), but obsessing at continental scale makes no sense.

We should also note that Macron has shown some willingness—more than his predecessors—to address France’s colonial history. He came under fire during the election campaign for calling colonization a “crime against humanity,” during a visit to Algeria. It was a significant statement, but unless some restorative policy follows, it has no meaning. Since reparations aren’t going to happen, one avenue would be education: telling France, and not just its youth, the truth about its colonial past and present, instead of sweeping the history—those eugenics practices in Réunion, for instance—under the carpet.

The fact remains that France stubbornly refuses to capitalize on its diversity. It will induct the odd non-white intellectual in the Académie française, but representation in politics, business, media, and other spheres that matter, is abysmal. Obsession with Islam and defending secularism only galvanizes opponents—including on the Left—of basic recognitions of difference that are standard in the US or UK. Despite these obstacles, a crop of outspoken anti-colonial activists, journalists, and social media mavens has formed in France; you can rely on them to hold Macron, and all French politicians, to account.

The right questions must be asked, as well. Macron’s tirade was in reply to Philippe Kouhoun, an Ivorian journalist for Afrikipresse, who asked—this is a direct translation—“How much are the G-20 countries ready to put in the envelope to save Africa?”

With that framing, it was easy, even logical, for Macron to argue instead for private sector investment, plus multilateral support for infrastructure, health and education—the standard technocratic menu. As for his “civilizational” remark, it merely confirmed that the young president, who is proud of his erudition, has made no room for Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Aimé Césaire, or Edouard Glissant in his thinking. He isn’t that deep.