Written by Thushari Perera

Newspaper coverage of French President Emmanuel Macron’s “historic” 2017 African tour signalled a clear shift in France’s cultural outlook. The New York Times’ headline was “Emmanuel Macron says returns of African artefacts is a top priority”, while Le Monde’s said “Restitution of looted colonial artefacts is no longer a taboo”. A critical review of international media suggests that it is a mistake to confuse Macron’s rhetoric with reality.


Macron: “African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums”

In his first stop in a three-day tour of West Africa, French president Emmanuel Macron delivered a high-profile speech at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in November 2017, highlighting France’s new vision for Africa. In this speech, Macron addressed the question of restitution of African heritage held in French national collections. On Twitter, Macron confirmed his vision by writing that “African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums.”

As US media was quick to point out, Macron was trying to disassociate himself from France’s paternalistic policy known as “Françafrique” popular in Charles De Gaulle’s era. Instead, he replaced it with his new strategy for Africa (and the world): the New Francophonie.

The New Francophonie

According to France 24, the updated version of “la Francophonie” is a term used to describe a network of French-speaking countries around the world that has some similarities with the British Commonwealth model.

Where Macron’s grand plan differs is in his global vision. Macron sees the New Francophonie as a “factor of integration between Francophone and Anglophone Africa”, or a driver of diversity and plurilingualism (including English). This master plan is premised on the assumption that Africa’s demographic explosion will significantly increase the number of diligent and loyal native French speakers from former colonies by 2050. These Africans will inevitably have to support France in its global dominance instincts.

Macron’s Francophonie is not, as some British journalists believe, a naïve emphasis on the French language or a kind of French version of the British Commonwealth.

Thomas Sankara – the African Che Guevara

Macron accordingly pledged to declassify former anti-imperialist President Thomas Sankara’s files. It is believed that Thomas Sankara was killed with France’s support in 1987. Sankara, also known as the African Che Guevara, wanted a “democratic and popular revolution” to be free from imperial domination.

Sankara also wanted to eradicate corruption, increase access to education and health care, and importantly fight environmental degradation and migratory flows to the Sahel region. In essence, it is linked to Macron’s visit that aims to secure military backing for the G5 Sahel Force (i.e. Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania) to stop terrorism in the region and migration towards Europe.


Restitution of African Colonial Artefacts or a Soft Power Exercise?

Macron’s new enthusiasm for colonial artefacts “restitution” should be taken with a pinch of salt. In an interview for La Fabrique de l’Histoire – France Culture, Macron said that the president must be capable of orchestrating in equal measure his institutional role, the political discourse and the historiographical debate.

Macron does not deny the importance of “soft power” to aid and abet “hard power”. As he put it, “you have to be attractive to influence.” Macron not only tops the “Soft Power 30 Index” but has been very active extending China’s “panda diplomacy” with “equine diplomacy”. Macron also promised to loan Britain the Bayeux Tapestry , without forgetting the creation of future Pompidou Centres around the world.

Macron however did not come up with the idea of African heritage restitution by himself. It was actually Patrice Talon, the president of Benin, who officially asked France to return African heritage in 2016. Talon wanted the return of around 4,500-6000 objects relating to Dahomey (previous name of Benin) taken between 1892-1894 by colonial French powers that are currently held by the Musée de l’Homme and Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. The restitution of theses artefacts was refused by previous French governments.

Power Imbalance in Cultural Heritage Maintenance

Worryingly, Macron’s Ouagadougou promises about the return of African cultural artefacts are vague. Contrary to eye-catching news headlines by The New York Times as “Emmanuel Macron says returns of African artefacts is a top priority” or even Le Monde’s optimistic view that the “Restitution of looted colonial artefacts is no longer a taboo”, Macron’s real words are more cautious.

What the French President actually said was: “Within five years I want the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent returning of African heritage to Africa…” Macron also emphasised that he sees these “returns” as “partnerships” involving “well-trained curators, academic commitments and government to government commitment to protect those works of art…”.

It is difficult to ignore that Burkina Faso still has many important challenges ahead. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and suffers from recurring droughts, important food insecurities and military coups. Worse, Burkina Faso still has major infrastructural worries, including electricity. Bizarrely, Macron refused to acknowledge any responsibility for electricity shortages in Burkina, despite France’s quasi-monopoly over its most strategic areas as the energy and telecommunication sectors. This also does not chime with Macron’s plan to create a technological revolution by introducing a Digital Africa programme. These key economic areas cannot be underestimated in terms of preservation and conservation of cultural heritage.

France’s New Cultural Diplomacy

Macron’s new diplomacy for France is generally puzzling. It is reminiscent of the outrage that Macron caused at the G20 Summit, when he replied to a journalist about the lack of Marshall Plan for Africa in the following way: “The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilisational today.” He seemed to suggest that it was pointless to invest in Africa when women had seven or eight children each.

Macron caused offence not only because he seemed to refer to the colonial “civilisation mission”, which justified imperialism and the exploitation of African people and land, but also because he did not recognise that imperial plundering of former colonies is also responsible for underdevelopment or the very circumstances he describes.

More importantly, if Macron views African countries in this way, why is he now expecting a poor country like Burkina Faso to meet his exacting terms and conditions for the return of cultural artefacts? Heritage expert Rachel King from UCL pertinently asked “whether his updated priorities for restitution will entail supporting infrastructure for object storage and curation in African museums, and if so how French heritage experts will go about offering this support.”

Macron and Colonial Amnesia in Algeria

What clearly overshadowed Macron’s visit on the African continent was his new take on France‘s and Algeria’s common past. During the French electoral campaign, Macron had divided France’s public opinion by calling French colonialism in Algeria a “crime against humanity.”

The country won its freedom in 1962, following the Algerian War of Independence that lasted eight years (1954 – 1962) and cost more than 1.5 million lives. In 2006, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared that colonisation had brought the genocide of Algeria’s identity, language and traditions.

Although Macron’s visit to Algeria’s primary goal was to reiterate the need to stabilise Libya with Algeria’s support, many Algerians expected an official apology from the newly elected president for France’s 132 years of colonisation of their land. Macron had appeared to hint towards a full apology before his election. He preferred instead to say it was time to move on from Algeria’s colonial past, prompting Algerians to call Macron a “master of deception” on social media.

The Politics of Apology

Macron’ s pre-election attitude towards Algerian-related issues is exposed as pure “political opportunism” to secure the vote of second and third generation Algerian immigrants whose sense of belonging has been challenged since 1962. They are estimated by Foreign Policy at a non-negligible proportion of the French population.

Macron could also have signalled a fresh start with Algeria and its shared history with France by apologising. He preferred to be tactical by targeting its youth, who faces mass unemployment with the claim that they were not even born when colonialism happened. As the New Arab points out, when 70 percent of the Algerian population is under 35 years old, it is a clever way “to focus anger on the [Algerian] government and away from France.”

Macron’s failure to apologise was equally a missed opportunity for France’s youth, future and memory work. An apology for France’s imperial past in colonial Algeria would have also had a deeper meaning for a sizeable part of the unemployed dual Algerian-French youth in France, who predominantly live in housing estates in banlieues and routinely face discrimination and Islamophobia.

Return of Algerian Resistance Fighters’ Skulls

When Macron could have started a genuine healing process by acknowledging that French imperialism is a crucial chapter in Algeria’s national identity, Macron said he did not believe in “repentance”, echoing former French President Sarkozy’s stance.

According to the New Arab, Macron preferred instead to talk about giving the right to re-enter Algeria to “Harkis” (those who supported French forces against the Algerian liberation movement) and about the return of Algerian resistance fighters’ skulls currently on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

As the New Arab mockingly observes, “It’s difficult to find a more potent symbol of the continued relevance of French colonialism. A French president attempting to dictate the behaviour of a former colony towards its oppressors, and continuing to hold on to morbid colonial artefacts, while simultaneously declaring that the very legacy of colonialism is dead and buried.”

Reconciliation Without True Dialogue

Peculiarly, Macron wants Algerians to be comfortable with his version of history, that he conveniently claims has “neither totems nor taboos” when he knows too well the traumatic effect this history still has on France and Algeria’s collective memory, especially when there has not really been a public reckoning of France’s imperial past.

As American media already observed in 2012, it is disappointing that that there does not seem to be many publicly funded research centres focusing solely on France’s colonisation of Algeria, although there are state funded public foundations on the history of the Maghreb region. According to Muslim media, there is neither much acknowledgement of landmark research on this topic that are written by Arabic academics, nor translation into French. In this context, Macron’s readiness to give Algeria a copy of the archives of the French colonial period (1830-1962) was seen as a “breakthrough” by Algeria given the tense relationship the country had with previous French presidents.

Moreover, historian Jennifer Session, Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa points out that Macron’s “flagrant about-face” happened after France had two significant triggers about “how to remember France’s colonial history.” The first one was the “Taubira Law”, which recognizes the slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity. The second was in 2000 with new studies by French historians that revealed “the French army’s systematic use of torture during the Algerian War of Independence.”

These triggers led to the repeal of “the infamous law of Feb. 23, 2005, whose Article 4 specified that French school programs should ‘recognize the positive role of the French presence overseas, especially in North Africa.’” Historians’ outrage led President Jacques Chirac to repeal this inglorious law, as historians opposed “the sidelining of slavery, racism and colonial violence, and the apparent endorsement of nationalist ethnocentrism.”

Macron’s Cultural Funding Lottery

Another issue which raise suspicions about Macron’s true reasons behind his decision to restitute some colonial artefacts is his new approach towards cultural funding in France. British art magazine Apollo says that Macron plans to introduce the use of national lottery funding to support cultural funding as Britain does.

When Macron claims that his political project is first and foremost a cultural project, it is difficult to understand why the French state is now planning to “gamble” on its cultural funding by somewhat reducing it. Macron seems to contradict his own grand vision for the celebration of France’s rich cultural diversity.

In L’Histoire, Macron said that he saw French culture as multiple, complex and with diverse worldwide influences – Italian, Spanish, English, German, Oriental, African, American and Asian. Macron believes that French culture needs to be redefined and that a “Renaissance” is necessary.

Louvre Abu Dhabi

Macron’s visit to Louvre Abu Dhabi last November 2017 seems to further exemplify the new president’s desire to diversify revenues, by exporting successfully France’s cultural brands abroad, while at the same time renewing military and diplomatic ties within a region.

The Louvre says it has loaned more than 300 works from it collections to this “architectural wonder” designed by French architect Jean Nouvel in the Emirates. The Louvre Abu Dhabi project was initiated in 2007 by Jacques Chirac. The partnership is believed to cost US $ 1.1 billion. It includes works from prehistoric times to the contemporary age, including Bronzes, Ancient Egyptian funeral sets and Buddhist sculptures. Now, Louvre Abu Dhabi also includes the famous US $ 450 million Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Salvator Mundi.

What the general public may not know is that France negotiated strict borrowing conditions with Louvre Abu Dhabi. According to France 24, 400 million Euros have been negotiated for the use of the brand “Louvre” for 30 years. The Emirate also had to pay a significant amount of money to the Louvre to borrow works of art for 10 years and for an annual programme of temporary exhibitions for a period of 15 years.


Revolution or the New Clothes of Neo-Colonial Expansion

Overall, a closer look at Macron’s alleged desire to decolonise European museums reveals that it is only a pretext to secure France’s trade and security policies, despite Macron’s grand posturing about France’s history and reconciliation of memories. What Macron or Europe truly wants is to stem the flow of African migrants across the Mediterranean and terrorist groups from Libya. The main purpose of Macron’s African trip was to secure international backing of the G5 Sahel Force.

When restitution of African heritage and their maintenance are concerned, Macron does not see “the inegalitarian challenges posed by globalisation” as Thomas Piketty would say. As The American Interest observed, not only did Macron go for “the low-hanging fruit” by offering vague promises on the return of African cultural artefacts, but he also failed to offer any concrete policies to improve the fate of African countries that still heavily depend on France’s support in key economic areas due to France’s imperial encroachment.

Finally, Macron’s attitude towards a rich African museum as Louvre Abu Dhabi suggests that his cultural funding and its diversification strategy are ruthless. Macron notoriously fosters a dangerous start-up culture of alleged deserving winners and losers. It raises concern about the terms and conditions France will impose on cash-strapped African countries that obviously have less “bargaining power” about cultural heritage.

Far from promoting a decolonisation process of European museums, it appears that newly elected French President Macron is using colonial artefacts for global dominance and expansion via his new Francophonie by proudly wearing a European hat. All Macron wants is to counter large geopolitical blocs as America, China and Russia. As recent critics said Monsieur Macron, “Your politics contradict the humanism you preach.”

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