Why should it be a big deal if a French president gives a speech in Dakar? Lots of reasons. Rarely does anyone walk softly and carry a big stick in quite the same way that François Hollande did earlier this month. Hollande was walking softly—even talking softly—while in Dakar. Some five years after Nicolas Sarkozy’s infamous speech asserting that “the African man had not sufficiently entered into history,” Hollande seemed to be both pandering to and hectoring Senegal’s National Assembly in his address before it. Africa was the continent of the future, he insisted—young, with a growing economy, forward-looking. But Hollande also looked backwards, recognizing that Senegal had given a great deal to France in the past, whether voluntarily or not. Blaise Diagne took a seat in the French Parliament in 1914, he noted; Léopold Sedar Senghor helped to write a new French constitution in 1958. Democratic lessons keep coming—there are more women in parliament in Dakar than in Paris. The debt is deep, Hollande said, and it passes through the slave trade, recruitment into the world wars, the massacre of mutinying soldiers at Thiaroye in 1944, and so much else.

In New York for the UN General Assembly, Hollande’s diplomats had been waving the big stick. They pushed the Security Council to give conditional approval for a West African force to intervene in Mali. Hollande picked up that theme in Dakar, too. Tough to look like the new democrat when you are effectively arguing for an invasion—as necessary as that might be. Was this a new African policy or the old FrançAfrique?

Hollande was unequivocal about that. During his presidency, he said in an interview, “There will be France. There will be Africa. There won’t be any need to fuse the two words.” French-African relations would be transparent, he asserted, and characterized by respect.

Still, Hollande’s trip had a kind of look-at-the-birdie quality to it, and not just because of the saber-rattling in New York. The visit to Dakar was meant to serve as a counterpoint to his next stop, in Kinshasa, which Hollande clearly had mixed feelings about. The 14th francophone summit was being held there recently, but Congo’s President Joseph Kabila is not exactly the company that Hollande wants to keep, and Congo was not the first place on the continent he wanted to visit. Even while there, he went out of his way to express his discomfort with the “unacceptable” fashion in which Kabila governs the Congo, with the turbulent elections that kept him in power, and with the murky murder of human rights activist Floribert Chebeya in 2010. At Kinshasa’s French Institute, Hollande inaugurated a new A/V center named in honor of Chebeya, even as the investigation into his murder continues. He also met with opposition leaders and generally behaved… well, not exactly like an invited guest.

Another gesture—made the same week—was no less symbolic. Fifty-one years after French policemen murdered dozens, maybe hundreds, of protesting Algerians in the center of Paris on October 17, 1961, Hollande became the first French president to recognize that fact. Millions of tourists walk past the tiny plaque on the Seine that notes discreetly that here, from the bridges, policemen threw Algerians to drown. This is not some hidden place like, say, Philadelphia, Mississippi. But here, like there, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past yet. What the presidential confession means, no one knows yet. But if Hollande wants to talk colonial crimes, he’ll be a busy man.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.