Sacré bleu! Mbeki and Sarkozy?
By Achille Mbembe (August 27, 2007)
The new president is not known as a philosopher. Racist prejudices linger in the words of his speeches, and he has constantly used the theme of immigration to seduce followers of white supremacist Jean-Marie le Pen. As interior minister, Sarkozy oversaw a dramatic increase in the daily police harassment of African immigrants. And during the 2005 anti-government explosion in many French cities, he infamously referred to the rioting youth -- most of them of African and Arab descent -- as “scum” waiting to be cleaned up. -- Achille Mbembe on Sarkozy's history
A high-stakes diplomatic poker game is unfolding between South Africa and France. Last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Senegal and Gabon, two former French colonies, where some of the 11 000 troops France has garrisoned across the continent are still visible almost 50 years after independence.
In Gabon, Sarkozy was paraded in the company of Omar Bongo, the autocrat who has ruled his oil-rich fiefdom with an iron fist since 1967 and who is now under investigation for looting state assets and investing them in France. To celebrate Gabon’s newfound commitment to environmental sustainability, Sarkozy and Bongo travelled to the interior, where they were introduced to a couple of African gorillas.
True to his reputation, the French president delivered a controversial speech at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, where he declared that colonialism was a “mistake”.
Conveniently leaving aside the support successive French governments have given to the most corrupt and brutal regimes in postcolonial Africa, as well as France’s role in the Rwandan genocide, he proclaimed: “One cannot blame everything on colonisation -- the corruption, the dictators, the genocide, that is not colonisation.” France might have made “mistakes”, but they believed in their “civilising mission” and “did not exploit anybody”.
And the pièce de résistance: “Africans have never really entered history. They have never really launched themselves into the future. In a world where nature controls everything, man has remained immobile in the middle of an unshakable order where everything is determined. There is room neither for human endeavour, nor for the idea of progress.”
The new president is not known as a philosopher. Racist prejudices linger in the words of his speeches, and he has constantly used the theme of immigration to seduce followers of white supremacist Jean-Marie le Pen. As interior minister, Sarkozy oversaw a dramatic increase in the daily police harassment of African immigrants. And during the 2005 anti-government explosion in many French cities, he infamously referred to the rioting youth -- most of them of African and Arab descent -- as “scum” waiting to be cleaned up.
As could have been expected, Sarkozy’s racist tirade was roundly condemned in West Africa -- and within a section of the French intellectual elite itself.
All of this seems clear enough. But last week a puzzle emerged. A private letter to Sarkozy, allegedly written by President Thabo Mbeki, was leaked by the Élysée Palace to the French daily Le Monde. The report suggested that Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar had received the endorsement of none other than the prophet of the African renaissance himself.
“What you have said in Dakar, Mr President, has indicated to me that we are fortunate to count on you as a citizen of Africa, as a partner in the long struggle for a true African renaissance in the context of a European renaissance and a renaissance of the rest of the world,” Mbeki is quoted as saying.
Direct requests to obtain a copy of President Mbeki’s letter have failed. Officials at the Union Buildings say that the correspondence is private. So we do not know whether Le Monde’s report is accurate, nor the context in which the remarks were made.
We do know, however, that in his August 3 Letter from the President, Mbeki quoted favourably from the less objectionable sections of Sarkozy’s speech, which he described as being “of critical importance to our country”. The speech, he said, sought “to respond to the challenge to liberate the billions in the South from poverty, especially as this relates to our continent and us as Africans”.
President Mbeki’s alleged endorsement of Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar, as reported by Le Monde, has been met with disbelief in franco-phone Africa, where France is widely perceived as one of the main obstacles to Africa’s emancipation.
Unlike most of its counterparts among industrial democracies, France has evaded acknowledgment of the systemic racism at the core of its civic and cultural life.
That two years before he exits power, Mbeki would tie his impeccable pan-Africanist credentials to Sarkozy is but the latest paradox in the political journey of a man who has thrived on contradictions. Were he to do so, Mbeki would deeply alienate francophone West Africa, of which South Africa knows so little about. He would also run the risk of giving his blessing to a profoundly demeaning representation of the continent by an arrogant former colonial power that has, for the last 50 years, actively stood against the African project of emancipation.
One has to ask if the diplomatic advantage is worth it.
Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand and author of On the Postcolony
Originally appeared in Mail and Guardian.