French President Emmanuel Macron says his country owes Africa, which it must now repay progressively.
At the first-ever France-Africa Summit, that excluded politicians, the French leader said that Africa’s relations with France, one of its former colonial masters, has not always been beneficial for both sides, but said these are lessons to be taken to the future.
“France owes Africa a debt, and we now must find ways of effectively paying that debt in a sustainable manner,” he said on Friday.
Macron spoke in the French city of Montpelier, in the presence of about 5,000 representatives from Africa, none of which was a mainstream politician, but mainly from French-speaking countries.
During his brief speech that preceded a round table discussion with 12 African youth, Macron acknowledged that Africa and France are tied at the hip and that it has now become apparent that interdependence, collaboration and solid partnerships between the two parties will be the only solution to the problems hindering good relationships between France and Africa.
Find practical solutions
“I have heard your concerns, and I encourage all of you to be brutally honest and to speak out boldly so that together we can find practical solutions to our problems,” Macron said during the summit that was held in a bid to interrogate the barriers that prevent Africa and France from enjoying a cordial relationship.
The summit was held in the backdrop of heightened tensions between Africa and France, particularly brought about by the instability in Africa’s Sahel region, and the various coups and attempts that have been witnessed in French-speaking Africa including Mali, Chad and Guinea.
In fact, of all West Africa’s former French colonies, only Senegal hasn’t witnessed a coup. Critics have argued that this instability is partly because of the way France granted independence, and how it maintained its finger on the pulse of politics in those countries.
The meeting brought together entrepreneurs, sports personalities, cultural activists and researchers, film directors, scientists and students.
No African head of state was invited, which was a notable change from previous summits. Benoît Verdeaux, a former diplomat and the current secretary-general of the Montpellier Summit, said that this was necessitated by the fact that the average age of the population in most of Africa is between 30 and 40 years of age, and not the typical elderly statesmen.
He also acknowledged the fact that the monetary aid that France extends to African countries is neither sustainable nor helping the countries develop.
For this, he promised to change the name of the France Development Agency and restructure its mandate and operations. The FDA will be celebrating its 80th birthday this year.
Macron also touched on the poor relationship between France and Africa and committed to doing everything in his power to ensure that this relationship improves.
Regarding the war in Mali and other West African states, Macron defended his position and said that France’s interventions in those states only comes in when needed, and is never intended to destabilise the countries.
“I have never sat in a military meeting to strategise against a sovereign head of state. But when presidents refuse to leave power or to hold elections, or seek to extend their terms unlawfully, it is the duty of the regional communities to intervene. That is our role. To support regional bodies in protecting democracy and ensuring peace and stability within troubled African states,” Macron said.
He also dispelled the notion that he was out to isolate heads of state, saying that the youth in Africa know exactly what they want and that their input would be greatly valuable in improving relationships between his country and Africa.
“In the next decade, the average age of African youth will be below 30. That means the population will be dominated by teenagers and young people. And I believe it is this demographic that holds the solutions to the challenges being faced by Africa and the world today.
Kenya was represented in the 12-person panel by former radio presenter Adelle Onyango, who is now a blogger with the weekly show titled “Legally clueless”.
“How do we solve our pain when the source doesn’t acknowledge it? We, as Africans, still have memories of colonialism. Our parents keep telling us about it. It is still fresh in their minds. It is not over, nor forgotten. These are things that cause us great pain, and until France acknowledges its role in that period, relationships between those two continents will continue to be tense,” said Adelle to the President.
An activist from Burkina Faso was particularly animated and put it to the president that Africa will not accept to be treated as anything less than partners.
"If Africa and France are cooking in the same pot, then the pot is dirty. And if you insist on cooking in that pot, we shall not eat at your table,” said the Burkina Faso activist to wild cheers and raucous applause.
"Stop cooperating and collaborating with these dictator presidents," said Cheikh Fall, an influential Senegalese blogger who also asked President Macron to first apologise for France’s colonial-era crimes.
Macron responded by saying that asking for an apology is too easy, and will not free France from its role in colonial history.
“We have apologised many times before for the role we played in Africa during the colonial times, even though we were not the only perpetrators. I acknowledge the role we played in the triangle trade that led to slavery and I will continue to do so. But apologising is too easy. What we need is to come up with policies and recommendations that will truly appease Africa, and to bring back true collaboration and partnership between the two regions,” he said.
“This notion that Africa is a country of sad, poor, unemployed people is over. Forget that. That period is over. Africa is a continent of young, optimistic and enthusiastic people who are ready to realise their full potential. But we cannot do that if France continuously suppresses any efforts for Africa to rise. These are some of the things that cause us great pain, and we must tackle these issues by first being brutally honest with each other,” said Adam Dicko, a young Malian activist.
Dicko also boldly stated that in instances of war or coups in West Africa, foreign military interventions have never solved anything.
Macron responded by saying that despite the opinion that Africa holds against France, he is proud of being a Frenchman and that some of the issues of the past simply cannot be erased completely.
“I am proud to be French, just like you are proud to be Malian. I cannot erase the past. What I am inviting you to do is to rewrite history with us. And I agree. We must be brutally honest, starting with the history we teach our children in school. It is important for us to document the correct facts of our past and teach our children the truth about what happened, so that we can, together, rewrite a better story for the future. We don’t have to live with mistrust against each other or continuously suspect each other based on issues of the past. With that approach, we won’t go far,” he said.
In conclusion, Macron announced that 26 artworks and other prized artefacts long sought by Benin would be returned to the country at the end of this month.