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A Critique of Nicolas Sarkozy

If they'd had the chance, the majority of French-speaking Africans would have no doubt voted against Nicolas Sarkozy at the last French presidential elections. It's not that his rival of the time, and even less the Socialist Party, had anything particularly convincing to say about Africa, or that the Socialists' past practices demonstrated any desire whatsoever to radically change relations between France and its former colonies. The new French president would have simply paid a high price for his attitude to immigration when he was Jacques Chirac's Minister of the Interior, his alleged collusion with the racist extreme right-wing and his role in sparking the riots in France's deprived suburbs in 2005.

Nicolas Sarkozy's Africa

By Achille Mbembe (August 8, 2007)

Translated by Melissa Thackway

How is it possible to come to Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar at the start of the 21st century to address the intellectual elite as if Africa didn't have its own critical traditions and as if Senghor and Camara Laye, respective champions of black emotion and the kingdom of childhood, hadn't been the object of vigorous internal refutations?

What credibility can we afford such gloomy words that portray Africans as fundamentally traumatized beings incapable of acting on their own behalf and in their own recognized interests? What is this so-called historicity of the continent which totally silences the long tradition of resistance, including that against French colonialism, along with today's struggles for democracy, none of which receive the clear support of a country which, for many years, has actively backed the local satrapies? How is it possible to come to promise us a fanciful Eurafrica without even mentioning the internal efforts to build a unitary African economic framework? -- Achille Mbembe, Scholar

Violation by Language

On his first tour of sub-Saharan Africa, he thus arrived in Dakar preceded by a terribly negative reputation: that of a hyper-active and dangerous politician, cynical and brutal, power-crazy, who doesn't listen, speaks his mind and more, doesn't skimp on the means and who, with regard to Africa and its people, shows nothing but condescension and contempt.

But that wasn't the whole picture. Many were nonetheless willing to hear him out, intrigued if not by his political intelligence, at least by the formidable efficiency with which he has handled his victory since his election. Surprised by Rachida Dati or Rama Yade's nominations to the government (even if there were more ministers of African origin in the Republic's ministries and assemblies in the colonial era than today), they wanted to know if there was some kind of grand design behind the manoeuvre: that is, a true recognition, on France's part, of the multiracial and cosmopolitan nature of its society.

He was, therefore, keenly awaited. To say he disappointed would be an understatement. Of course, the cartel of satraps (from Omar Bongo, Paul Biya, Sassou Nguesso to Idris Déby, Eyadéma Jr. et al.) were delighted at what clearly transpires as the choice of continuity in the running of "Franceafrique", as is dubbed the system of reciprocal corruption which, since the end of the era of colonial occupation, has tied France to its African accomplices.

But, if one is to judge by the reactions expressed here and there, the editorials, the letters to the press, the interventions on private radio stations, the debates on the Internet, a very large part of French-speaking Africa - starting with the youth he chose to address - found his words absolutely incredible, if not frankly shocking. And understandably so. In all relations in which one of the parties is not free nor equal enough, the act of violation often begins with language - a language which, on the pretext of simply expressing the speaker's deepest convictions, excuses all, refuses to expose its reasons and declares itself immune whilst at the same time forcing the weakest to bear the full force of its violence.

Regression

For those who expect nothing from France, the words pronounced at the University of Dakar were nonetheless highly revealing. Indeed, the speech written by Henri Guaino (special advisor) and delivered by Nicolas Sarkozy in the Senegalese capital offer an excellent illumination into the power to harm - conscious or unconscious, passive or active - which, over the next ten years, might well arise from the paternalistic and hackneyed vision that some of the new French ruling elite (on both the left and right) continue to project onto a continent which has nonetheless constantly undergone radical changes, especially during the second half of the 20th century.

In all his "candour" and his "sincerity", Nicolas Sarkozy openly revealed what, until now, went unspoken: that is that, both in terms of form and content, the intellectual framework underlying France's policy to Africa literally dates back to the end of the 19th century. It is thus a policy whose coherence depends, despite a few new touches here and there, on an obsolete intellectual heritage that is over a century-old.

The new French president's speech shows how, trapped in a frivolous and exotic vision of the continent, the new French ruling elites claim to shed light on realities that they consider their worst fears or their fantasies (race) but which, in reality, they know nothing about. To address "the elite of African youth", then, Henri Guaino contented himself to lifting, almost word for word, passages from the chapter Hegel devotes to Africa in his work Reason in History, which I again, after many others, recently criticized in my book On the Postcolony.

According to Hegel, Africa is a land of unchanging substance and dazzling disorder, the joyful and tragic country in Creation. Black people, as we see them today, are as they have always been. In the immense energy of the natural arbitrariness that dominates them, neither the moral moment, nor ideas of freedom, justice and progress have any place or particular status. Whoever wants to discover the most appalling manifestations of human nature can find them in Africa. Strictly speaking, this part of the world has no history. What we understand, in short, going by the name of Africa, is an ahistoric, undeveloped world, entirely prisoner of its natural spirit and whose place remains on the threshold of universal history.

The new French elites do not believe anything different. They share this Hegelian prejudice. Unlike the generation of the "Papa-Commanders" (de Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand, or Chirac), who tacitly espoused the same prejudice whilst avoiding openly offending their interlocutors, France's "new elites" now consider that one can only address societies so deeply plunged into the night of childhood by speaking unguardedly, with a sort of virgin energy. And that is indeed what they have in mind when they now openly defend the idea of a nation no longer "hung-up" about its colonial past.

In their eyes, it is only possible to speak of Africa and to Africans by following the path of sense and reason in reverse. It doesn't matter if this is done so in a context in which each word spoken is so in a blanket of ignorance. It suffices to pile on the words, to employ a kind of verbal plethora, to advance in a suffocating wealth of images - all the things that give Nicolas Sarkozy's Dakar speech its abrupt, faltering, and blunt character.