Antoine Pouillieute is a French public servant and former diplomat. He was French Ambassador to Vietnam and Brazil. He served as Director General of the French Development Agency (AFD) from 1995 to 2001. He is a graduate of the École nationale d’administration (ENA) and member of the Conseil d’ État. Antoine has written extensively on international relations and emerging countries.
This is a translation of a longer article that first appeared in French in Commentaire
To some extent the issue in Africa, as elsewhere in the Global South is not anti-French but anti-Western feeling.
The “clash of civilisations” predicted by Samual Huntington 30 years ago has been playing out in front of our eyes. Implicit in this clash is a rejection of “the other”. To this can be added Western errors of judgement: one was to suppose that free markets and free trade would suffice to lead the international community to representative democracy; another was to believe that the world shared or could legitimately be converted to the West’s attachment to universal human rights.
Globalisation has served to enable China to offer developing countries, including those in Africa, an alternative to Western values by demonstrating the absence of any contradiction between economic growth and authoritarian government. So successful has been that demonstration that in 2022, at the United Nations, democracies were in a minority: 86 out of 193 member states, 46%.
For African governments challenged by a growth of inequality, rising education standards, the impatience of youth, and their own inadequacies, stirring up anti-Western feeling has been a tempting safety valve.
That said, in French-speaking Africa anti-Western feeling automatically takes the form of anti-French feeling. Its intensity and focus vary from country to country. It is at its fiercest in the Sahel, moderate in Madagascar, economically-focussed in Senegal, and politically-focussed in the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Gabon. Everywhere, though, its manifestations are the same: insulting slogans, the burning of flags, sacked cultural centres, French troops reviled.
But there is also a rejection of France which is nourished as much by resentment as by perceptions.
The roots of the resentment are deep:
- in 1959 the pensions of Africans who had fought for France were frozen. This was experienced as a humiliating. It opened a wound that has never really healed.
- In 1986 the French government made the possession of visas obligatory for Africans wishing to visit France; and in 2011 the conditions under which African students could obtain residence permits were stiffened. These measures aggravated feelings of inequality.
- French military interventions in Africa since the 1994 war in Rwanda – in the Ivory Coast (2002), Libya (2011), Mali and the Central African Republic (2013) – for which the justification was an inconclusive war on Islamic extremists, were seen as interference in the domestic affairs of African states.
Negative perceptions of France originate in various symbols of France’s presence in Africa:
- Many of the French businesses present in Africa are there to extract economic rents. They form an influential club. Young Africans see them as predators, despite often looking to them for jobs.
- Although French military bases offer the advantage of pre-positioned forces, they are a cause of animosity. In some cases, hurried force redeployments have exacerbated this feeling. The bases also kindle a desire for absolute sovereignty, even if only for form’s sake.
- The information technology revolution offers young Africans a virtual freedom of movement which will never be matched by the availability of French visas or Friench immigration policy. French consular offices in Africa tend to create a first impression of France that is not as welcoming as it could be.
- The survival of the CFA “Franc” is jarring to African ears.
Why such hatred? This question gnaws at all who devote part of their lives to Africa. It is only a lucid analysis of the ingredients, on both sides, of the equation that the beginnings of an answer can emerge.
On the African side these ingredients include:
- From Cairo to Cape Town and from Dakar to Addis Ababa a continent-wide pride has the young in its grip. This pride is all the greater for the fact that everyone – even Davos Forum participants – is speaking of Africa as the continent of tomorrow.
- Anti-French feeling allows existing regimes to discard their obligations. Younger Africans experienced neither the end of French colonialism nor the Cold War but experience daily the effects of inadequate policies, the arrogance of growing inequalities and a failure to contain Islamic extremism. By nursing those resentments those who are in power can hope to escape their responsibilities. In the view of Achile Mbembé, a Cameroonian historian, “they fashion a scapegoat as a reason for doing nothing themselves”.
- A deadly generational divide still characterises many African societies. This is reflected especially in an absence of orderly transfers of power from one generation to the next. The median age of the population of Europe is 44, that of Africa 19; the median age of European leaders is 53, that of African leaders 63. When power is transferred between generations, a coup d’état is the medium. Coups propel to power young Captains who, once installed, reject all talk of democratic transition, the better to hold on to their newly-won positions.
- The yoke of their seniors has become intolerable to the youth of Africa; their exasperation at “belonging to an open society within a closed system” is beyond consolation.
What are some of the ingredients on the French side?
- The French colonial model rested on three pillars: missionaries, soldiers and settlers – and on the ideal of assimilation. It resulted in France involving itself intimately in native societies. In that respect French history diverges widely from the colonial record of Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Iberia. This high degree of involvement cuts both ways: it means that 60 years after proclaiming the independence of its African colonies, France is still liable for the outcome of independence.
- France’s position in Africa is a source both of self-esteem and vexation. Having found it hard to come to terms with the loss of status implied by President Giscard d’Estaing characterising France as a “middle-ranking power”, in West and Central Africa France has enjoyed being seen as a “great power”, a guarantor of stability. Yet it is vexing that France’s African “clients” no longer follow her lead: at the UN, when the General Assembly voted last year on whether to suspend Russia from the UN Council on Human Rights, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Gabon, Cameroon, Mali and Togo failed to vote with France.
- The vocabulary changes, but the grammar stays the same: France is still prone to indulging in dated postures. When the Sahel-G5 was faltering at the end of 2019, Paris rushed to organise a Summit in Pau. All who were convoked deferred to the summons.
- France continues to prize stability over progress in the direction of democracy. When President Macron attended the funeral of Idriss Deby at N’Djamena in April 2021, his presence was understood by all to denote the anointing of Idriss’s son. At a Franco-African Summit in Montpellier in October 2021, every participant but France was happy that representatives of civil society could exchange views without heads of state being present.
- These days Africans and French are more likely to talk about inclusive governance, equality of the sexes, and global warming than about education, drinking water, and health; but it is still the same people who are thinking up solutions and implementing them. A former President of Mali, Amadou Touré, used to say: “The hand that gives is always above the hand that receives”.
France is pained by “its” Africa, while Africa no longer recognises “its” France. Can such resentments be overcome? Yes, according to Cynthia Fleury, a philosopher, provided one resists turning one’s bitterness into a devouring obsession.
In practice, waiting for the storm to pass would resolve nothing; effecting a “Reset” is not feasible; a huge expansion of commitment is not an option. That leaves one solution: staying true to oneself, to the model one represents and to one’s values, and working tirelessly to reconstitute a power of attraction. People can then climb on to the train or stay on the platform, but at least the train will be moving.