The echoes of colonialism can still be heard in France

Grace Gardiner | Europe & Eurasia Fellow

‘Does Macron understand how much influence France has lost in Africa?’

So asked Achille Mbembe, celebrated Cameroonian anticolonial philosopher and historian, in an article earlier this month. His question is difficult to answer, but it can be said that French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to restore any influence his country has lost in Africa. His calls for a ‘love story’ between France and Africa echo the desires of the European Union (EU), which in March issued a communication calling for a ‘comprehensive strategy’ between the two continents.


Like the EU, Macron imagines African countries, with their large and innovative populations, fertile lands, and emerging economies, as essential to Europe’s post-pandemic recovery. But European, and particularly French, interest in Africa has a long and dark history. For centuries, this interest manifested itself in colonialism – a one-way relationship of European exploitation. Since decolonisation, French interest in Africa persisted, and successive leaders ensured that this murky history went largely unspoken.


This year, however, the silence has finally broken: in Europe, the Black Lives Matter movement evolved to focus on colonialism and its legacies in the continent and the world, and protesters in France drew a direct link between past imperialism and the oppression of minorities today. In Africa, leaders and protesters alike have started to call for a new relationship with their former colonisers: one that does more than pay lip service to the injustices of the past and is based on equality and respect. France’s inaction in confronting its murky colonial past has finally emerged as a domestic and diplomatic problem, and if it does not take real action soon, its influence will continue to decline in the way Mebembe describes.


Financial imperialism? The CFA Franc


No example demonstrates the tribulations and changes in the relationship between France and Africa than that of the Central African Franc (CFA Franc). The currency was established by France during decolonisation, officially as a way to continue the partnership between the European state and six of its former colonies (eight more new African states joined the West African Franc). By joining the CFA Franc zone, African states agreed to participate in a currency that would be directed in part by the French treasury, which would be pegged to the French Franc and, later, the Euro, at a fixed parity rate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the CFA Franc has been criticised for being a continuation of European financial imperialism in the continent by robbing Central Africa of economic sovereignty and the ability to develop sustainably.


Reforms to the CFA Franc that purported to address this criticism were meant to be implemented this year. Some of the proposed changes do go some way to give African countries more control over their own currency: deficit, exchange, and inflation rates would be controlled in relation to member states’ Gross Domestic Products (GDPs), and governments would be given some more decision-making power. However, the reforms have been further criticised for being little more than a ‘rebranding’ of the same system: the currency would change its name to the ‘Eco’, but the French treasury would continue to maintain unlimited control over its convertibility.


Many of the reforms focus on structuring the Eco in a way that resembles the Euro, stipulating criteria through which more African countries can enter the shared currency zone. While this is not harmful in and of itself, the concern remains that an increasing number of African states will enter into a currency which is, through its association with France, subject to the decisions of the EU, in which Africa has no say. The reforms have been indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic: thus, central Africa must wait for even a symbolic change to its economic relationship with its former colonisers.


Domestic memory and the legacy of colonialism


The CFA Franc reforms exemplify a broader problem: France’s unwillingness to combat its history of colonialism in a way that is anything but symbolic and vague. Black Lives Matter protesters in France took particular aim at the country’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The recent brutal beating of a black musician in his Paris studio, and a flare in tensions between the government and France’s Muslim population have compelled the same protesters to draw a link between this history and their country’s treatment of racial minorities.


At first, it seemed that Macron might be listening to protesters and opening a conversation that for too long had been stifled. This is, after all, the first president to recognise France’s colonial occupation of Algeria as a ‘crime against humanity’. But this is also the president who stopped short of apologising for this crime. In response to the protests, Macron has stated that while no monuments celebrating colonialists will be removed from French cities, new ones will be erected, including a memorial to the 1802 Guadeloupe slave rebellion and an unnamed black woman who participated in it.


But, as with the CFA Franc, it seems that the reforms to national memory Macron is proposing are purely symbolic. As the president pays lip service to the decolonial cause, his government is moving to entrench established power relations, introducing a bill that, if passed, will criminalise the recording of police officers by civilians. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens have taken to the streets to protest this bill, arguing that it will facilitate police brutality, which is disproportionately committed against racial minorities in France. In October, a Congolese activist was fined 1000 euros for protesting in Paris’ Quai Branly ethnographic museum against France’s failure to return artefacts taken from its colonies.


Actions in the domestic and international realms suggest that, far from being open to a ‘clear headed’ discussion of the past, the French government is looking for new ways to silence the conversation and secure its own interests. The lacklustre CFA Franc reforms, ongoing rhetoric encouraging African countries to ‘move on’ from colonialism, and responses to recent protest prove that when it comes to a choice between national interest and truly equal relations within the nation and with its supposed allies, the French government will continue to opt for the former.


But the times are changing: it is clear that Europe must pursue more equal partnerships with African countries. France cannot build a positive relationship with African countries, nor can it begin the difficult process of racial reconciliation within its own population, without discussing the most difficult aspects of colonial history. Such a national reckoning is not impossible, nor is it unprecedented: France underwent a similar process coming to terms with its complicity in the Holocaust and integrating this difficult history into its national memory. If France, and indeed all of Europe, does not confront colonialism and its legacy, interactions with its racial minorities and with the African countries it hopes to cooperate with will always be stained by history.


Grace Gardiner is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.