‘Seven or eight children per woman,’ were Macron’s exact words, as he rehearsed a canard that is particularly popular among nostalgic colonialists who still speak of the Dark Continent. Nabila Ramdani examines what these comments tell us about the new French leader.
Social media lynchings are as hyperbolic as they sound, but Emmanuel Macron got all the metaphorical violence he deserved when he suggested that poor African women have too many babies. The newly elected French President used a press conference at the G20 summit in Hamburg to say that wanton reproduction often made foreign aid pointless.
“Seven or eight children per woman,” were Macron’s exact words, as he rehearsed a canard that is particularly popular among nostalgic colonialists who still speak of the Dark Continent. There was even a clumsy reference to the “civilisational” problems that result from an escalating birthrate, not least of all mass immigration to western countries.
Macron was torn apart on Twitter and Facebook for his crude racism, but there was generally silence from France’s establishment. This is because imperial attitudes prevail in a country that has by no means altered its condescending approach towards those it subjugated, often with immense barbarism.
Note how Macron had just elevated the late politician Simone Veil to the status of secular sainthood by awarding her a final resting place in the Panthéon – the Paris mausoleum set aside for the true greats of French history, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Victor Hugo.
Rather than literary masterpieces, Veil’s most notable achievement was the legalisation of abortion, and she also made it far easier for French women to get hold of contraception. What a poignant contrast: the beyond-criticism national heroine (white, one of our own) devoted to keeping numbers down and all those unnamed feckless mothers (black, alien), utterly incapable of controlling anything, least of all their own bodies.
What is less widely discussed about Veil is that she campaigned for the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy to become president of France in 2007 – the year when he claimed during a visit to Dakar that “The Tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered history”. Fury in Senegal was echoed by anti-racism groups in France, where Sarkozy was notorious for his insidious brand of identity politics.
Beyond his divisive rhetoric, the pugnacious head of state did all he could to demonise domestic ethnic minority communities. Sarkozy was following in the tradition of the mission civilisatrice – the “civilising” crusade that underpinned French colonialism. Unlike the British, whose Empire was mainly motivated by economic gain, the French thought they could tame and indeed “educate” indigenous populations, even if they had to rely on overwhelming firepower to do so.
There were high hopes that Macron would buck this macho trend, but all the indications are that he jolts into unthinking reactionary mode worryingly easily. In June, he again caused outrage by “joking” about lethally unstable boats used to transport migrants from the Comoros Islands to the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte: a French overseas territory (for which read modern-day colony).
He said a Kwassa-Kwassa fishing vessel “doesn’t do much fishing, it carries Comorians”. The wisecrack ignored the fact that more than 12,000 people have died on the crafts, leading to the Council of French Citizens of Comorian Origin demanding a public apology for the “racist and dehumanising declarations”.
It is only fair to Macron to acknowledge that just before his election he visited Algeria – the largest country in Africa and once the jewel in the French Empire – and described colonialism as “a crime against humanity”. Given how many on the Right in France still bemoan defeat at the hands of Algerians who fought so successfully for independence, it was a welcome but hollow claim. The votes of millions of French citizens from Algerian backgrounds were undoubtedly far more important to Macron than anything else.
Furthermore, his glad-handling of American President Donald Trump, the charlatan now occupying the most powerful executive position on earth, would suggest that Macron is more than happy to overlook hateful bigotry for political gain. They will be buddying up in Paris at the end of this week, after Macron invited his US counterpart to this year’s Bastille Day parade.
There will be plenty of internet venom aimed at the pair, and indeed mass street protests across the capital. Many will say that a discriminatory oaf like Trump has no place in a cosmopolitan city like Paris. The truth, however, is that his more extreme views have far more in common with traditional French ideologies concerning allegedly lesser races than they would care to admit.
This article was first published in the Independent Newspaper.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.