Over the past few months, the term ‘civilization’ has been used by state leaders in worrying trend. In the first instance, the term was used by President Donald Trump on a visit to Poland, where he articulated the threat that ‘Western civilization’ is experiencing currently and needs to address through military might. Although the rhetoric, in light of recent terrorist attacks, is perceptible and the sentiment of defense justified, the meaning behind such rhetoric is exclusionary and excessively simplistic in a world that has undergone fundamental changes since the Second World War .These changes are explored through a second state leader who made suggestions of ‘civilization,’ off-handedly, President Emmanuel Macron of France.
While President Trump’s views of world politics and trade and insistence to affirm America’s position in the world are long noted and perhaps entertaining to watch, they often obscure the focus on other world leaders and analysis of positions. President Macron’s presidential victory over Marine LePen in May was seen as a victory over the potential for European neo-Fascism. Contrasting Le Pen ideas, Macron is seen as being more liberal and having a pro-European vision, purporting a platform which found a success in maintaining the European Union narrative and affirming a broad status quo in ideological practice. The reality of such a status quo, however, is to the detriment of France’s former colonies in Africa.
In his statement following the G20 Hamburg conference, President Macron was asked a question in reference to Africa’s development. His answers were riddled with references to poverty, a ‘civilizational’ problem, and corruption. The President’s remarks were viewed as deeply offensive and archaic at the least. The comments that Macron made about Africa with particular reference to Francophone Africa quite explicity overlooks and negates the contribution Francophone Africans have made to France. The President’s failure to mention the direct colonial legacy of which France still broadly enjoys would suggest a degree of humility when discussing African affairs. After all, it was only in April of this year that former President Francois Hollande gave 28 World War II veterans from its former colonies French citizenship, an agreement that was meant to have been honoured since the end the war more than sixty years ago. Adding insult to injury, the pensions of said World War II veterans from the colonies were lower than their French compatriots and for a period of time were even frozen. These veterans have long struggled for recognition and equality in France.
The complex relationship and effective stranglehold of France on Francophone Africa doesn’t end with pay or appropriate residency violations for time served in the armed forces. Francophone African troops who served were gunned down by the French troops after the liberation of France when they mutinied over unequal pay and pensions. This despite the fact that Paris’ liberation during World War II was done in large part by troops from the colonies. While up to two-thirds of the Free French Forces were colonial soldiers, they were systematically removed and replaced by soldiers to lead the liberation of Paris even though many of the replacements originated from North Africa, Spain and Syria. In the brief exercise above, it becomes quite evident that the French state in its current form has not only taken the lives of former colonial subjects with little regard but has not honoured them contractually or spiritually.
President Macron’s statements about the ‘civilizational problems’ on the African continent are seemingly an indirect affirmation of France’s colonial theory of ‘mission civilisatrice’, which was meant to bring all the benefits of Frenchness to the continent. As the term suggests, the theory is based on the ‘civilization’ of people, resulting in them becoming ‘Western’ through French identity. The concept therefore presupposes the ‘civilizational’ superiority and burden of responsibility upon the civilizer, in this case the French Republic, disregarding former French colonial soldiers contribution in France’s and the Allied Forces hour of need. The treatment of the Francophone colonial African soldiers, countries and citizens coincides closely with the perceived inferiority of their lives and labor by the French State since WW II, regardless of their contribution.
France’s direct influence over many of its former colonies is best articulated through the existence of the West African CFA franc and the Central African CFA franc – to which a total of 15 African states belong. The currencies are underwritten by the French treasury where the reserves are located and pegged to the Euro. Though providing relative price stability in the countries, the currencies are over valued for the markets they serve, resulting in a low manufacturing output at 10% and an over reliance on commodities and agriculture. With a low manufacturing base, the respective markets are dependent on importing manufactured goods which undoubtedly would predominately originate from France. Ultimately, French economic and military presence in Francophone Africa is very much part of its Africa policy. The President since taking office has pledged support for the G5 Sahel fighting force in Mali, providing additional combat support for the 4,000 troops in the region.
President Marcon’s flippancy in discussing an issue that is a core issue for the French state to address suggests that Francophone Africa should not expect any change in attitude from the Republic, in its concerns about their undue influence and prejudicial attitude regarding its true economic and political independence under this French government.
Any shift in a truly different approach and liberal agenda that Macron appears to propose within France and the European Union should consequently be adopted to France’s spheres of influence on Francophone Africa. The current clear conflict of interest in the economic sovereignty of CFA Franc countries needs to be urgently addressed by the President. This view may excessively put the onus of responsibility on the current President as Francophone- African Presidents have previously found themselves ‘removed’ from office when attempting economic reform away from French influence.
The innovation of the ‘civilizational’ statements made Trump and Macron hold part of the very problems that the world seems to be facing; the notion one’s own superiority over another. In a time of globalization states and their leaders need to face hard questions about the nature of their state’s global footprint and their place in history. President Macron’s tenure holds an opportune position to open the question of how to seriously address the France-Africa relationship and consequently the EU and African States. For too long, many Francophone-African states have attempted to be part of a cohesive discussion on their own affairs only to be effectively dictated to and marginalised. If he chooses to do so, Macron can help African states build self-sufficiency, concertedly support good governance and democracy, and finally change the stage by hailing a new era in French-Francophone African relations.
Chiziwiso Pswarayi is Master’s graduate in International Relations at the University of Cardiff. Chizi’s interests include Southern African politics and migration issues.