Sarkozy and Africa: big white chief's bad memory

James McDougall
7 December 2007

On his 2006 album Identité en crescendo, French rapper Rocé ruthlessly dissected the French republic's "single and indivisible" self-image, revealing the jagged edges of exclusion and hypocrisy that fracture the country's cities and society. His songs also, not coincidentally, and just as vigorously, denounce the voluntary amnesia that envelops aspects of his homeland's recent past: "Memory trouble, I've got bad memory trouble, History tastes bitter, learning hurts my head, I can't do it, It makes me mad, History makes me bitter [...], Questions that keep coming back, Left too long in the dark, History doesn't tell the whole story, Only half the facts, They've cut out the tongue from the other half, Its silence is deafening [...], People are like trees, They have roots on their soles, For some of us they reach far off, And it makes us sick [...], The assimilation system that makes us problem people, Identity shot through with absence, Orphaned of our memory..." (Problèmes de mémoire).

The Parisian banlieusard son of an Argentine Jewish father of Russian origin and an Algerian Muslim mother, Rocé self-consciously embodies the complexity of intersecting histories that makes up contemporary French society and its relationship to its own past and to the rest of the world. His uncompromising refrain is not for a cosy, liberal multiculturalism that would erase difference while ostensibly fêting it. Even less is he making an "identitarian" - or, the new vitriol-word in French politics, "communitarian" - claim to rights on the basis of minority specificity.

On the contrary: "With my half-and-half head, of wandering Jew and Muslim, My suspect ID card, Black student, White rapper, My face doesn't fit, Any time, any place, Don't know what I am in the eyes of others, But I know what I am without" (Le métèque). Rocé's position is at once simpler and more radical than the community politics that has been a focus of recent fears for the viability of the French cultural and political "melting-pot" in the 21st century. His refusal to "'integrate' to a country that is mine already", is a demand that individual dignity and republican citizenship be grounded on recognition of the indissociable fusion of plural histories that makes contemporary France and its people at once, in the title of another song, l'un et le multiple, indivisibly "singular and multiple".

James McDougall is lecturer in the history of Africa at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London. He was formerly assistant professor of history at Princeton University. He is editor of Nation, Society and Culture in North Africa (Routledge, 2003) and author of History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Also by James McDougall in openDemocracy:

"Islam(s) and politics: post-traumatic states in Algeria" (10 July 2007) Who we are and where we come from

France's "inner-city" banlieues (suburbs) hit the headlines again in November 2007. New and disturbing levels of violence saw gunshots fired at police by rioters, injuring one officer, in Villiers-le-Bel north of Paris after two teenagers were killed when their motor-scooter collided with a police car. While the banlieues' problems are economic before all else, they also involve the enduring cultural consequences of France's imperial past and the way that past is understood in its contemporary, post-colonial society.

Similar questions have provided increasingly contentious focal-points for French politicians and commentators over the past several years. Issues of identity and memory have more often been overplayed or instrumentalised than understood - with public debates staged around the headscarf or "Islam" rather than addressing the causes of failure in, or exclusion from, education and employment.

But a part of the resentment and alienation that leads young men in the suburbs to attack the symbols of their state - the police, above all - is bound up with questions of belonging and recognition. France's political class has tended to bewail an alleged "refusal to integrate" rather than seriously debate how to manage the country's social and cultural complexity; how to write, teach and enact its commemorative public culture.

The first of these questions - social exclusion and youth unrest understood as indexing a failure to "integrate" minority immigrant communities into "mainstream" French society - was thrown into sharp relief by the nationwide suburban violence of October-November 2005, and is reprised by its reoccurrence almost exactly a year later. The second - how to recreate an inclusive and harmonious "national narrative" that restores France's fading grandeur and reasserts its place in an increasingly "Anglosphere" world - has been unsettled by the slow re-emergence into public consciousness of the traumas of decolonisation, especially those of the colonial war that France fought for eight years (1954-62) against the Algerian movement for national independence.

Also in openDemocracy on France's colonial inheritance in Africa:

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism" (5 February 2003)

Patricia Daniel, "Mali - everyone's favourite destination" (10 May 2006)

KA Dilday, "Zidane and France: the rules of the game" (18 July 2006)

Gérard Prunier, "Chad's tragedy" (7 September 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "Indigènes: enlarging France's history" (18 October 2006)

Andrew Wallis, "Rwandan rifts in La Francafrique" (14 December 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "France's immigration politics" (12 February 2007)

KA Dilday, "Nadia Yassine's journey" (2 August 2007)

The publication in 2001 of the memoirs of Paul Aussaresses, one of that war's cloak-and-dagger protagonists - he commanded an army torture-and-death squad during the battle of Algiers in 1957 and subsequently rose to the rank of general - contained little that was new to historians (or Algerians) but inconveniently obliged the French political class to confront the public airing of some of its dirtier linen. Aussaresses was subsequently prosecuted, not for murder and human-rights abuses during the war, but for "apology for war crimes": his real crime was not to have killed and tortured for, and with the knowledge of, the French state, but his unashamed, and unrepentant, publicisation of the fact.

At the same time, a series of challenges to ambient amnesia has come from both the university and civil society. The liberalisation of archive access and the growth of interest in colonial history during the 1990s led to new work by a new generation of French historians. The resulting debate, alongside the gradual success of a series of long-running campaigns for recognition by casualties of colonial history - especially the former "native" soldiers of the imperial army, whose long-ignored story made headlines in Rachid Bouchareb's 2006 film Indigènes - suggested that a more subtle, multifaceted recognition of France's imperial history and post-imperial society might be under construction.

There is an evident political need for a public accounting for the past in a society whose present diversity has inevitably been rooted in often conflicting inheritances. If these can never be reconciled, they nonetheless insistently demand recognition. Since many of the disenfranchised and excluded in the banlieues have as their own history an inheritance of being on the receiving end of France's colonial "mission", and since France's ex-colonies, especially in Africa, have continued to hold a significant place in its foreign political and commercial relations, the issue is of more than merely academic significance.

New politics, old mind

These conjoined questions of colonial memories and contemporary crises were much in the air when Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister who promised to take a high-pressure hose to the criminal racaille ("scum") blighting urban France's high-rise post-colonial periphery, went on the campaign trail for the presidency in 2006. With his much-vaunted slogans of both rupture with the past and ouverture (opening) onto all political currents as well as to the future, Sarkozy's presidency has made much of renewing France's pride in itself both at home and on the world stage.

The integration of at-risk minorities into the renewed and self-confident nation has been an essential part of this agenda. Sarkozy, after his election victory and inauguration in May 2007, has overtly sought (in an echo of George W Bush) to flag "multicultural" credentials in putting together his administration, including portfolios for high-profile, successfully high-flying "representatives" of the post-colonial migrant community: deliquency-fighting judge Rachida Dati as minister of justice, Senegalese-born Rama Yade as secretary of state for human rights at the foreign ministry, grassroots women's rights organiser Fadela Amara at the ministry of housing with responsibility for urban affairs.

So although they might not have appreciated his political colour or his track record as minister, when President Sarkozy went to Africa in July-August 2007, to address the continent's young people in the capital of France's former West African Federation, there were important things to be said about France and the peoples of its former empire, their relationship in the past and their imbrication in the present, and the people concerned were prepared to listen.

What he said was not generally well received. But it provided an alarmingly (if characteristically) blunt exposé of some useful clues to the (a)historical cast - and limits - of Sarkozy's thinking about the nature and consequences of France's colonial rule over the people whose children are now France's suburban citizens; about the relationship between France and Africa; and about the meanings of being "French" and "African", in a world where many of those citizens are, irreversibly, both at once.

Fantasy past, fantasy future

The headline event of Sarkozy's first (and brief) tour of sub-Saharan Africa was a speech, written by special advisor Henri Guaino, delivered "to the élite of Africa's young people" on 26 July at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal. The tone and content of the forty-five-minute address were poorly chosen - or deliberately injurious - for the context: a leading African university named for one of the continent's major intellectuals, whose work, however debatable in some of its conclusions, laid much of the ground for subsequent academic work on pre-colonial African history.

As responses from both African and French audiences immediately demonstrated, the president's "vision of the continent" and its future were hardly grounded in a careful attempt at understanding or a serious project for north-south cooperation. For the Senegalese audience, Sarkozy appeared in the well-worn and unwelcome role of "the ‘big white chief' come to enlighten his ‘little African brothers'" (see Thomas Hofnung, Libération, 28 July 2007).

Sarkozy's "vision" of Africa turned out to be a tissue of fantasy images drawn from a familiar stock of 19th-century clichés:

"The tragedy of Africa is that African man [sic] has never sufficiently entered into History. The African peasant, who for millennia has lived with the seasons, whose ideal of life is to be in harmony with nature, knows only the eternal recommencement of time in rhythm with the endless repetition of the same gestures, the same words. In this imaginary where everything always begins anew, there is no place for the adventure of the human spirit, nor for the idea of progress. In this universe where nature commands all, [African] man escapes the anguish of History that grips modern man, but he remains immobile amidst an immutable order in which all seems written in advance. Never does he launch himself towards the future. Never does the idea occur to him that he might break with repetition and invent his own destiny."

From this admirable (in harmony with Nature) but savage (outside History) homo africanus, colonialism "took but [...] it also gave. The coloniser built bridges, roads, hospitals, dispensaries, schools, made fertile virgin soil, gave his effort, his labour, his knowledge"; the fact that it was African labour that built the roads and bridges, that hospitals, dispensaries and schools were generally available only to a very few, that the "virgin soil" was expropriated from people who then worked it for someone else's profit, is discreetly passed over.

The important thing is that the colonisers "believed they were fulfilling a civilising mission, believed they were doing good. They were wrong but they were sincere." And "sincerity", apparently, covers a multitude of ills. The faults of colonialism were, indeed, many (it "disenchanted Africa" of its "soul [...], the sacred ties that men had forged over millennia with the sky and the earth, [...] the mysteries that came from the depths of the ages"), but since "colonisation is not responsible for all the difficulties of Africa today" (a banal truism that only the most vulgar misreading of all the critical literature on colonialism could justify as a worthwhile assertion), it is held responsible for nothing. Rather, "that part of Europe" that rests in Africa is not a difficult and profoundly ambiguous inheritance of dislocation and oppression but "the call of liberty, of emancipation and justice and of equality between men and women; it is the call to universal Reason and to consciousness."

Sarkozy's rhetoric, in seeking an ostensible acknowledgment of the "wrongs" of colonialism and slavery without attributing responsibility for them or continuing significance to their legacy, mired itself in contradiction and evasion: elevated to a "crime against all Humanity", slavery becomes a crime not against its actual historical victims but "a crime against Man" - and therefore against no one in particular. The legacy of slavery remains "an open wound in the soul of all men", and so one that cannot (or ought not to) be healed, since "no-one can ask today's generations to expiate the crimes of past generations": another banality that dodges, rather than addressing, more serious questions of historical responsibility.

Sarkozy the anti-intellectual, in embracing the worst aspects of a Romantic authenticism of "the African personality", selectively identifies with the "ancestral wisdom" and "mysterious faith" attributed to his audience, with "this need, in which I myself believe so much, this need to believe rather than to understand, to feel rather than to reason." Altogether, the president's address, while claiming to offer a "politics of reality and not a politics of myth", in fact presented quite the reverse.

But Sarkozy's evidently abysmal grasp of African history cannot be seen simply as ignorance. This it perhaps is; the president's consciousness, to take him at his word, is apparently as forgetful of half a century or more of social science in, and about, Africa as it is fogged by imperial fictions. More significantly, however, the "big white chief's" overt parading of his shockingly bad memory suggests a deliberate reiteration of a fantasy that has served, and has most likely been deliberately and defiantly revived to serve, a particular and deeply reactionary political agenda. Amidst the torrent of exoticist cliché, vulgar post-colonialist culturalism, flat contradiction and empty exhortation were buried three tiny kernels of policy orientation.

The first message, left unsaid, was nonetheless patently apparent. To those thousands of young Africans (outside the "elite") whose "taste for adventure and the open ocean", in Sarkozy's words, led them along clandestine paths of immigration to Europe - and frequently to drowning in that open ocean between Senegal and the Canary Islands - the president's invitation to Africa's young to "acquire, outside Africa, the skills and the knowledge that cannot be found at home", clearly didn't apply.

(To those lucky enough to make the grade for training in Europe, the injunction that they "return and build Africa [because] we must put an end to the pillaging of African elites that Africa needs to develop itself" might almost sound like a progressive move to limit Europe's selective draining of African expertise, rather than a promise of visa restrictions, were it not for the fact that Sarkozy's "selective immigration", privileging the highly-qualified and well-resourced, is already known to all concerned.)

The second notion, that France and Africa should cooperate in a "common strategy towards globalisation", ought to give pause to hasty assessments of Sarkozy's shrewd fence-mending with the United States as anything other than tactical repositioning. Sarkozy's "rupture" might involve a radical shakedown of France's welfare state, retirement provisions, community policing, wealth-taxes and institutions of higher education; but it does not mean disavowing the state's role in economic direction, an end to national "champion" industries, or a straightforward alignment alongside the bogged-down American empire in what is swiftly becoming once more, after the misunderstood hiatus of the 1990s, a messy and multipolar world.

Sarkozy's barbs at "the materialism and individualism that enslave modern man, [...] the dehumanisation and flattening-out of the world", his suggestions that "free trade is beneficial but is not a religion", that "competition is a means but not an end in itself", his promise that, like Africa, France wants "another globalisation, one with more humanity, more justice, more rules", are classics of the French lexicon of Europe-the-world's-alternative-to-America. The root of Sarkozy's global thinking is Gaullist, not Blairite.

Still, the notion of an alternative, co-developmentalist and "negotiated" approach to globalisation might sound like just another platitude intended to discourage immigration, were it not undergirded by a third and more substantial policy idea, produced at the very end of the president's harangue, and surprising in its frank revival of an openly imperial theme. Built on the fantasy image of the Franco-African past is what turns out to be an old dream of a "Eurafrican" future.

Retreat and dig in

Sarkozy's vision of the two continents' co-development is embedded in a 19th-century imperial fantasy of African primitivism and European modernity. It appears today as an unabashed recycling of a later, mid-20th-century imperial vision: "What France wishes to achieve with Africa is to prepare for the advent of Eurafrique, the great destiny that awaits both Europe and Africa."

A late-colonial Rip van Winkle, awakening after a slumber begun in, say, 1956, would have rubbed his eyes and thought he'd missed nothing. Eurafrique was the French empire's geo-strategic last stand, a cause embraced by the various shades of national opinion that, through the crises of the 1940s and 1950s in Madagascar, Algeria, Cameroon and elsewhere, supported the crushing of African insurgencies as the first step towards reconfiguring the imperial estate, and France's global role, in the cold-war world and beyond.

"Co-development" and "interdependence" were buzzwords then as now, their unspoken real meaning being the preservation of unaccountable and lucrative French commercial, financial and political interests in Africa - which, since the 1980s, have lubricated the wheels of all sides of the French political machinery as well as underwriting various African dictatorships, their civil wars and institutionalised practices of corruption. This was the basis of what became known, to critical observers of Franco-African relations after formal independence, as Françafrique.

A network of commercial and political relations between French political parties and big business, on one side, and partner regimes in the former African colonies, on the other, Françafrique is what philosopher and critic (and openDemocracy contributor) Achille Mbembe has called a "system of reciprocal corruption tying France to its African feudatories." This "scandal" has drawn fire for years from lobby groups, intellectuals and NGOs calling for a reform of France's African policies, but only broke into general public consciousness with the "Elf affair", Europe's largest-ever corporate and political financial-crimes investigation, undertaken between 2001 and 2003, and in which several leading political figures were implicated before being eventually acquitted. (Several of the oil company's top executives were sentenced to prison terms.) Sarkozy's resurrection of the original Eurafrique notion might be billed as a rupture and an ouverture - as indeed he suggested, during his presidential campaign, that the end of Françafrique would be on his agenda. But it provided an alarmingly (if characteristically) blunt exposé of the original claim to metropolitan dominance that has underalin France's post-colonial relationship with its former colonies all along.  

As most observers quickly recognised, Sarkozy's African trip revealed the limits of rupture and ouverture: in the ex-metropole's view of its ex-colonies, as at home, the radical rhetoric of blunt "sincerity", the "opening-up" of the ruling sphere and its ostensible break with the institutions and practices of the past, is a thin cover for a retrenchment of the established order. Just as Sarkozy's own political network is a glittering array of establishment power and wealth, the "revolutionary" new right is a bastion of entrenched nationalist myths and prejudices whose promise of renewed French grandeur rests on a firm facing-down of the "masochistic" liberal treachery of "repentance" that would have the republic make amends for its various past crimes and face up to its present deficits of freedom, equality and fraternity.

Instead of announcing an opening of dominant self-definitions, public culture, and social order to those "problem" memories and "problem" populations that it has long kept on the fringes of its consciousness and its cityscapes, the trend of French public culture is to rehabilitate the prejudices and the rhetoric of the colonial past. Instead of addressing the challenges of this past - a frank assessment of France's imperial legacy, a repudiation of the murky post-colonial business of Françafrique (overdue in any case if only because of the general shift of French capital investment and trade away from its old "backyard" of francophone, and towards anglophone, west Africa), and a reassessment of the historical and cultural reality of the several meanings of being "French" in France's contemporary society - Sarkozy's orders are to retreat and dig in.

The coincidence of a crisis of "national cohesion" with the perceived undermining of its supposed concomitant, a historical culture of "national identity", has produced a conservative reaction that aims to recover the nation's "self-confidence" by vigorously reasserting a nativist agenda shamelessly borrowed from the extreme right, at home, and a restatement of imperial clichés abroad. The conjuncture of these issues with the rise of a new-right populism courting an electorate stifled by perceived economic underperformance and a choked job market, impatient with bureaucratic inertia, and resentful of America while secretly wishing to emulate it, has made for a particularly potent mixture.

Sarkozy's election showed how resoundingly popular was his message of national renewal among young, aspiring, middle-class voters keen to see France adopt a dynamic market individualism in which they see themselves thriving, and a hard-right law-and-order agenda to contain the simmering unrest and alienation of the suburban "problem zones". The result, however, has been not the much-vaunted rupture, but a retrenchment which seems likely to signal not renewal but regression - both internationally and domestically.

The defiantly reactionary tone of the Dakar speech is only the sharp tip of a more ominous iceberg. The entrusting of Eurafrican "co-development" to a ministry of immigration, integration and national identity whose schemes include DNA tests for would-be immigrants seeking to rejoin family members in France 22 is a considerably more troubling sign of things to come.

Je chante la France

The opening track on Rocé's Identité en crescendo has the emblematic title Je chante la France: "I've got whistling the Marseillaise, the flag under my feet, I've got my eyes fixed on this country and its quarrels, With my eyes untied and my whitened hide, I stammer, Almost without a trace of accent, The same problems as decades ago, Mother country of the rights of man? So long live women and savages, Killed by Men who themselves murder their own image, But songs and dances of resistance, In their intense insults, Make beautiful and sing of France [...] If I have to sing of something I'll sing humanity, Demand this country realise this is its opportunity, And when the doors are slamming shut, You have to stand in their way, It's only from these bruises we can rebuild France today."

The project of rebuilding French society, culture and self-conception on a recognition of its "bruised" and complex history is fast receding. Since Sarkozy's election, the possibilities of an opening-up of French history, self-image and public memory that had begun to make tentative beginnings in the past decade have been firmly foreclosed. "Recognition" of the colonial legacy has been recast as its rehabilitation, in celebration of "the epic of Greater France" and of the selfless and sincere work of "these men and women who [...] held in their hearts the confidence and hope of a people that had not yet learned to doubt itself", as UMP deputy Michel Diefenbacher, author of a 2003 parliamentary report entitled Promoting the collective work of Overseas France, put it to the national assembly in 2004 (see Romain Bertrand, Mémoires d'empire: La controverse autour du "fait colonial", Éditions du croquant, 2006).

The rollback has not been all one way. An attempt was made in a 2003 law recognising France's "gratitude" to the harkis - those several thousand Algerians who served in the French military during the war in Algeria - to legislate that university research should "accord to the history of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa, the place which it deserves" and that teaching programmes should "recognise in particular, the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa"; but this provision was eventually abandoned in the face of protest from outraged scholars and teachers.

This, however, may have been only the first manifestation of a deeper, and longer-term, reaction against the opening-up of French history, memory, and the society that underlies, and is shaped by, both. Sarkozy, on campaign as in Dakar, stressed repeatedly his opposition to what he calls the current of "repentance" among French intellectuals. If past crimes are to be acknowledged, as in the speech in Dakar, it is only to preach the need to "transcend" the '"open wound" and give France back its lost, self-confident and unrepentantly domineering imperial swagger.

The swagger is especially visible in the astonishingly open contempt shown by the president of the republic to the people of supposed partner countries in the south. But it may be especially damaging for the immediate future of domestic social relations, and for the hopes and rights of those French people of all origins who would wish for a France that might find its renewal, not in a long-tarnished imperial grandeur, but through making its peace with them, as well as with itself, its past, and its significance in the world.

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