At the beginning of 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron approached the Cameroonian historian and political scientist Achille Mbembe to prepare the New Africa-France Summit, which was to take place in Montpellier, France, on 9 and 10 October 2021. The most immediate context of a forthcoming election in France itself in which the French president might be using this occasion to win the Afro-descendant votes should not escape our minds. Unlike previous summits, this one was to welcome a new generation of young Africans from Africa and its diasporas to an open and direct dialogue with Macron. For the first time in history, the summit between France and African countries was held with no African head of state.
As part of the preparation for the summit, Mbembe had to lead a series of discussions in twelve African countries and the diaspora, ahead of the actual event, around themes of common interest. According to him, the aim of these discussions with African and diaspora youth was to “directly and openly question the fundamentals of this relationship [and] to redefine it together.”
Four days before the summit started, Mbembe submitted a 140-page report containing thirteen proposals for a ‘refoundation’ of relations between France and Africa. These proposals focus on an Innovation Fund for Democracy, a House of African and Diasporas Views, migration, employment, intercontinental economic transparency, the transformation of development aid, the voice of Africa on climate change, the narrative on Africa, the rethinking of the relations between Africa and Europe, the restitution of stolen works of art, among others. During the summit itself, twelve young people were selected to discuss with Macron and mount a critique on the issues arising from the proposals contained in the Mbembe Report.
What is the real meaning of this summit beyond the organisers’ pronouncements? How can we understand the controversies and discourses that came out of it? Was this summit simply a way for France to improve its image that has deteriorated sharply over the past four years?
Placing the summit in its historical context
The historical context of this summit is firstly, colonial and neo-colonial (Françafrique) and secondly, a context of increased global connections in which the Afro-descendent population has increased with France and cannot be ignored. Thirdly, it is also a context of insurgent and resurgent decolonization of the 21st century, which has also seen the escalation of activism – by African youth – targeting colonial symbols of domination in general, and those of French interests in particular. Therefore, a key question arises: Was the summit organised to respond to recent events on the African continent or in France, and to push France to open-up to debates that are uncomfortable but essential?
On the African continent, Senegalese youth protests that vandalised French interests in March 2021 are still fresh in the minds of French policymakers. The youth on the streets spoke loud and clear when they attacked French shops, petrol stations, supermarkets and you can guess that their names did not feature on the French list of the desired invitees to dine with Marcon at the summit. The invited youth were mostly the educated, youth with a pre-existing and official platform and means. There were few, if any, of the young protestors like those who revolted against French interests.
Other recent events in Africa include protests in Mali against the French military presence and the move to hire Russian militias to combat terrorism where the French have failed. On the day the summit was to start in October, Mali’s Premier accused France of training ‘terrorist groups’ and summoned the French ambassador. Youth also attacked French interests in Northern Mozambique, resulting in the deployment of forces from the SADC region and Rwanda.
These are a few examples to show that popular pressure on France informed Macron’s choice of inviting young participants instead of the heads of state to the summit. Throughout his presidency, Marcon has also defended the establishment of the ECO to replace the controversial CFA currency that is part of the French colonial heritage that West African protestors have rejected. French monetary imperialism has been subjected to heightened opposition from African youth.
In addition, recent global events like the #BlackLivesMatter movement instigated debates amongst French intellectuals who aligned with their politicians to dismiss the claims by Afro-descendants in France to have racism directly confronted. These elites dismissed demands to challenge racism in France as irrelevant to France’s past or present, claiming that the French state is based on anti-racist ideals of republicanism. Macron himself declared these are ‘certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States’.
Other prominent intellectuals joined in to argue that contemporary theories on race, gender, and post-colonialism were a threat to the French identity of liberté, égalité, and fratenité. These assertations were made ignoring a long tradition of French-speaking scholars like Aimé Cesaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Frantz Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Françoise Verges or more recently Norman Ajari, Pape Ndiaye, Nadia Kisukidi, even the academic director of the summit itself, Achille Mbembe, and many others whose works on post-colonialism have critiqued French society.
In fact, debates on the question of identity in France have shown that non-white communities’ lived experiences show that liberté, égalité, and fraternité are empty slogans and merely a façade to the reality of French society. For instance, issues of police brutality against non-white communities, especially the Afro-diaspora, did not feature prominently in the summit, although they concern the community whom Macron might want to lure in next year’s elections.
The summit claimed to break ties with the colonial past, but it was hardly the case as the major problems that continue to strain the relationship between France and its African colonies were not even addressed. Yet, the voices of young people were present on stage and they asked questions, made arguments that have long existed in post-colonial literature. Articulating these views in front of the sitting president and in France was a significant moment. For example, there was a speaker from Burkina Faso civil society who asked Macron to stop patronising Africans, and that a change of vocabulary was needed to move from aid to partnership. Nevertheless, even partnership is not radical enough; the correct demand must be for reparations and restitution. Such a demand would constitute a total turn in what mainly were political and diplomatic debates.
The other unique feature of this summit was the fact that they asked Achille Mbembe to take on the task as intellectual scholar for the forum. Was this a radical gesture by the president to engage an African intellectual – a one-time outspoken critic of France’s policy in Africa, rather than another politician? Mbembe traveled around the continent to listen and record divergent voices about Africa’s relationship with France. Mbembe’s involvement in the 2021 summit leads us to ask three questions we explore below.
Firstly, the gesture to endorse an African intellectual with ties to France was intriguing. Was this a sign that the French establishment are taking African intellectuals seriously? It was indeed curious for Mbembe to accept this task with its high risks of being accused of doing the clean-up work for an imperial power which has never left Africa and is increasingly being exposed for its continued neo-colonial, exploitative relations with the continent.
Secondly, Mbembe’s involvement and young civil society activists who voiced criticism can also be viewed cynically as part of the French strategy to divert attention to real issues, namely CFA monetary coloniality, the presence of its troops in Mali and France interference with the monetary reforms spearheaded by ECOWAS. Or was it to collect data on the changing pattern of West African consciousness and capture the new vocabulary of African youth as part of an effort to monitor debates, listen to frustrations, then re-align French interests across the continent accordingly? Or can this be a case of a ‘cognitive empire’ needing data to sharpen its tools and recruit new allies? Doubtless, though, is a popular demand for Europe in general, and France in particular, to embark on de-imperialisation as part of an essential pre-requisite to redefine relations.
Thirdly, the much-publicised summit was held in France. The selection of these young participants was preceded by a preliminary consultation with France. Even if it is argued that these debates had started during previous meetings on Macron’s visits to the African continent, the summit in Montpellier was a platform to send a message to Macron’s electorate that he cares about minority issues, and to African youth that France cares where their governments have failed, and to other world powers competing for Africa’s resources, that France is in a leadership position and in touch with ‘authentic’ issues.
The counter-summit was an eye-opener. A collective of associations, unions, and political parties organised a counter-summit to denounce the Françafrique (the term used to describe the continued and unabated influence of France, its government, and businesses, over its former colonies). Their objective was to unmask ‘the hidden face’ of the ‘New Africa-France summit’ and to challenge France’s policy in Africa. For most of the detractors, the summit was simply a publicity stunt to restore the image of France, which has deteriorated sharply in recent years, particularly in the eyes of African youth.
It is indeed true that several events of the last three years were behind the demonstrations against France in Africa and, therefore, Emmanuel Macron had an interest in a charm offensive to try and restore the image of his country in many regions of the continent.
The counter-summit registered the participation of significant political figures such as Mireille Fanon-Mendès-France, daughter of Frantz Fanon, and Miriam Sankara, the wife of the African hero, Thomas Sankara from Burkina Faso. For those attending the counter-summit, Macron’s announcements for a change in France-Africa relations over the past four years were being challenged as nothing but the usual operations of colonial seduction to give neo-colonial relations a new lease of life.
For example, the reform of the CFA franc, in favour of the future West African currency ECO, still guarantees a central role for France in the monetary policy of West African countries. Also, the announced end of Opération Barkhane is, like other previous military operations in Africa, part of a strategic redeployment towards maintaining French influence through military cooperation and the action of Special Forces.
Macron’s France has therefore never introduced a break in its African policy but, on the contrary, continues to increase its neo-colonial influence in Africa strategically to fight against growing criticism, particularly from young protestors. These are the reasons why this summit was considered as a symbolic renewal of old Franco-African summits, by using topics such as ‘Youth and actors from the diaspora, entrepreneurship, culture and sports’ to continue to revive the same colonial practices of France in Africa.
The counter-summit of a hundred organisations and supported by several political parties and unions succeeded in organising itself around a message which clearly showed what the meaning of “putting an end to the coloniality of France-Africa” had to involve. The meetings, debates and events they organised on the side-lines of the official summit showed a great mistrust towards Macron, based on their deep knowledge of existing contradictions between France’s discourse and its actions in Africa.
It emerges from these debates that this is not the first time a French president has promised to put an end to France-Africa coloniality, including president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and president François Hollande (2012-2017). These presidents always talked about cosmetic change and a change of style in their relationship with Africa, but not the kind of rupture that the counter-summit participants were asking for.
An example of changing styles over time is how from President Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969) to Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), France had a personal relationship with African presidents, in order to maintain its influence on the African continent. The style then changed with Sarkozy and increased with Francois Hollande, with more emphasis and focus on ‘democratisation’, but still insisting on positioning a relationship with politicians and the Élysée (the official residence of the French president). More recently, the gradual disappearance of former dictators in some African countries has not allowed the Élysée to establish personal and deep relations with certain African presidents. Therefore, it was necessary to change the former way of doing things, in order to maintain, above all, the influence of France in Africa.
Sarkozy, who did not appreciate the need to change the old model of the France-Africa relationship, paid dearly in a lawsuit related to his relations with President Muammar al-Gaddaf. Macron thus had no choice but to try and refigure the relationship in a different way. Yet, this does not mean that the core of France-Africa coloniality has altered in any way.
This is what the counter-summit meant in demanding a sign from Macron, showing that there really was a will for radical change. This would consist of France’s commitment towards five very specific points: (a) ending its military presence in Africa, (b) ending the neoliberal trade policy of France and the EU in Africa, (c) stopping support to presidents who remain in power in an undemocratic manner and French interference in the internal political and economic affairs of African countries, (d) cancelling the odious and illegitimate debts of African countries, (e) respecting the freedom of movement and settlement of people as well as putting an end to expulsions of asylum seekers from France in accordance with international treaties.
Some post-colonial thinkers, including Mbembe, argue that we should not only see cynicism in France’s declaration of its desire to improve its relations with Africa. Sometimes the will is there, but differences still appear on the issue of what a healthy multilateral relationship means. Though, we would argue, that beyond cynicism, there is above all an issue of ideological and cognitive incapacity which is at stake in the official French political imagination.
For those who follow topical issues in French politics, there is still in its political world a kind of nostalgia for the French empire, power and influence in the world, which ultimately makes imperialism a criterion of the greatness of a state. According to Achille Mbembe, this deep rationality implies that “France is struggling to enter into the ‘decolonial’ world that is coming” . For this reason, the counter-summit argued that the official summit organised by Mbembe was unable to break with this imperialist baggage which is at the very foundation of the French state.
The empire and its technologies of domination
The cognitive empire sustains colonial relations. It continues to invade the mental universes of its targets. It maintains surveillance over new knowledge which is not informed by colonial and capitalist interests. What sense do we make of the fact that the summit took place within a context in which conservative politicians in alliance with conservative intellectuals were mounting a push-back against critical race theory, intersectionality theory, post-colonial theory, and decolonial thought? These are frameworks that emerged from the battlefields of history and struggles against racism, enslavement, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. It is these frameworks that the current insurgent and resurgent decolonisation of the 21st century is building on, with students, youth and other progressive forces at the forefront.
The new world now has a critical language with which to propose and imagine a future beyond racism, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. The counter-summit was inspired not just by rethinking but unthinking all toxic colonial relations. Summits have been well-known techniques of sugarcoating colonialities. The long history since the 1958 referendum in France has amply demonstrated that colonial relations do not need reform but abolition for any genuinely new relations between France and Africa. What is needed is a double rupture—which is simultaneously epistemic and systemic.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).