The specter of neocolonialism

Francophonie has served to obscure the harms caused by neocolonial projects in Africa, projects that are themselves a reflection of the racism within France’s borders.

French soldier in Mali. Image credit Fred Marie via Flickr CC.

Conversations and actions around racism, discrimination, and police brutality in France should be grounded in the history of colonial exploitation. They also ought to be linked to France’s ongoing neocolonial endeavors in Africa and in the country’s “overseas territories.” These have occurred for decades without significant widespread critique, and are primarily military (such as France’s military operations in the Sahel, which have led to a flurry of anti-French sentiment across Francophone Africa) and financial (such as France’s control over the Franc CFA recently renamed Eco, a colonial-era currency that financially binds Francophone African countries to France, and which is now undergoing minor transformations critiqued for being purely symbolic).

The project of diluted yet continued political, financial, and military influence over France’s former colonies, which has contributed to stalling economic independence and propping up authoritarian leaders, is often obscured by the seemingly benevolent efforts of the Francophonie—known as both the international organization representing French-speaking countries around the world, and the political project of strengthening France’s power and influence through the expansion of the French language. French philosopher Nadia Yala Kisukidi describes the Francophonie as a form of French soft power, which, alongside symbolic acts such as the restitution of artworks, allows France to legitimize a military and financial hold on its former colonies.

President Emmanuel Macron, as late as October 2018, made clear his desire to strengthen and revitalize the Francophonie, thereby extending France’s influence across francophone Africa. As Kisukidi argues, when Macron describes his generation as one that has “never known Africa as a colonized continent,” as he did in 2017 during a speech in Burkina Faso, he is depoliticizing the present-day relationship between France and Africa, stripping it of any lingering exploitation.

This mindset is tied to the French state’s response to the current anti-racism movement. In a speech on June 14, Macron addressed the mass protests against racism and police brutality: “I see us being divided over everything and sometimes losing the sense of our history. It is a necessity for us to unite around republican patriotism.” The reality is that France and its population has always been divided, and failing to acknowledge this entails disregarding the historical reasons for these social divisions. There is not one single version of French history. Yet, forcing a single analysis, a single “history,” is precisely what occurred throughout France’s colonial rule, when colonial subjects were assigned a French identity and French history was imposed in schools.

In his June 14 speech, Macron mentions the importance of examining France’s history, including its relationship with Africa, but calls against “denying who we are.” The problem is not of excessive denial, but rather of weak avowal. France will not be able to fully address its racism problem without acknowledging not only its colonial past, but also its neocolonial present; without critically interrogating the ways in which the state currently strives to exert power over African nations. Condescending speeches (from Nicolas Sarkozy in his infamous 2007 speech, to Macron at the G5 Sahel summit in January 2020) reflect a continued racial bias, and are, arguably, the most public display of how France’s racism at home is tied to the country’s present-day engagement with Africa.

In the shadow of the summer’s mass marches against racism, smaller-scale mobilizations calling for the decolonization of French society also occurred, and are pushing the nation to confront its colonial legacies—though primarily within France’s borders. The 8th edition of the so-called “decolonial walk” took place on July 5 in Paris, organized by the United Front of Immigrants and Working-class Neighborhoods (FUIQP); the walk’s organizers temporarily replaced street names linked to colonial figures with the names of anti-racist and anti-colonial heroes. On June 20, Survie, an organization challenging France’s foreign policy and neocolonial projects in Africa, organized a protest in France’s northern city of Lille during which participants requested the removal of a statue of Louis Faidherbe, a French general and colonial administrator.

The organizers of these two mobilizations, alongside a collective of organizations and intellectuals, also issued a public statement on June 27 titled “Let’s decolonize the public sphere!” These protests and statements make important links between the continued colonization of collective imaginaries (of which colonial-era statues are a symbol) and systemic discrimination in France, though they have yet to be fully integrated with the broader calls against racism and police brutality that have shaken the nation and its public consciousness.

Further Reading