The Other African election: France’s First Round

Both of the front-runners, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist François Hollande, have run against FrançAfrique. Easier said than done.

Nicholas Sarkozy, on the right, with US President Barack Obama, September 2009. Image by Pete Souza for US White House.

What is there to say about that other African election, the one in France? Sunday was the first of two rounds in this presidential contest, which is a lot more about Europe—specifically Brussels, but also Berlin—than it is about Africa. Still, it will have real effects on both shores of the Mediterranean and of the Sahara.

Could French African policy could get any worse? Hard to imagine. Both of the front-runners, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist François Hollande, have run against FrançAfrique. That murky phenomenon, which for decades has fused the lowest common denominator interests of ruling elites on two continents, would seem to have run its course, or at least changed its stripes. But what’s replaced it is none too pretty either.

Sarkozy came into office in 2007 looking to put an end to the cozy corruption of FrançAfrique. Things didn’t quite work out that way, and he certainly got off on the wrong foot. Remember the speech in Dakar, when le petit Nicolas went to the Université Cheikh Anta Diop to pronounce with great solemnity that Africa had not “entered into history”? Those were the days. If you teach French-African relations, like I sometimes do, a speech like that is a gift. As Achille Mbembe wrote, all the phantoms and fantasies of the old colonial power were laid bare in it, and a whole library of colonial and racial thought surged back to life, like a zombie in “Thriller.” No better way to make the past urgent than to see it rise from the dead and walk towards you. Nicolas, we’ll miss you …

Since Sarkozy’s Dakar intervention, as Jean-François Bayart has pointed out, French-African policy has been propelled by concerns over terrorism, immigration (legal and clandestine), and drug-smuggling. Sarkozy spent five years picking senseless fights over ‘national identity,’ scape-goating immigrants and fellow citizens, and swinging his weight around militarily (Libya, Chad and Cote d’Ivoire; disastrous raids in Mali in 2010 and Niger in 2011). Add to that the protection of French enterprises in Africa (from cellular companies to uranium mines), and you have a politics to match the man: belligerent, opportunistic, crass, and undignified.

Hollande, on the other hand, is a sober party man. His campaign likes to portray him as a normal guy—as opposed to Sarkozy the “hyper-president”—and the center of his preoccupations is clearly Europe. While he’s talked about Africa as the “continent of the future,” he has also bemoaned the fact that France has been “relegated to an insufficient rank” there. Hollande would like to see that trend reversed, especially in francophone states. He might be right about Africa’s future and wrong about that of French-African relations. After fifty years of FrançAfrique and five years of Sarkozy, it might be too late to redefine a relationship that many on the continent neither need nor want.

What else can we say about round one of this miserable contest? The immigrants did not fare well. Sarkozy, son of an immigrant, did even worse than expected, as did Eva Joly, the candidate for Europe Ecologies-Verts (the Greens), who acquired French nationality by marriage (and who as a former magistrate has a deep knowledge of the rotten nature of French relations with Gabon in particular). But the immigrants, children of immigrants, and so-called ‘visible minorities’ fared even worse.

Over the last few weeks, Sarkozy’s desperate dive to the right played to the worst of the xenophobic nationalism that has been part of French politics for decades, and which only seems to get stronger. President of the Republic, proud of the diversity of his first cabinet, by 2012 he could do no better than to authorize the petty contempt and everyday racism endemic to French society (some of my French friends will howl in protest. I say to them: spend a few weeks accompanying a West African to government offices, as I have done, then call me). National Front candidate Marine Le Pen pulled down 18 percent of the vote in the first round, and 30 percent of the workers’ vote (yes, the workers’ vote). If you want to know how frightening that really is, listen to her talk and consider the fact that many of those who voted for her are expected to sit out the second round rather than vote for Sarkozy because he’s not ‘Right’ enough.

Nicolas Sarkozy is a small man, in every known sense of the word, and if he loses on May 6, he will leave the historical stage by what the French call “la petite porte.” May it hit him on the way out.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.