LONDON — The time was bound to come when France and the rest of the world would miss that old crook, Jacques Chirac, but who could have guessed that it would arrive so fast?
Only three months have passed since Chirac reluctantly relinquished the presidency — he was last seen sulking (or maybe just hiding from various judicial investigations) in Biarritz — and already he begins to look good. If only because his hyperactive successor, Nicholas Sarkozy, seems so strange.
There has long been a debate in France about whether the new president is really as shallow as he seems, or whether his shoot-from-the-lip populism — like calling the participants in last year’s urban riots “scum” (racaille) — is a deliberate strategy to appeal to the prejudices of rightwing voters. It will never be settled beyond doubt, but the evidence for the “stupid” hypothesis is getting hard to resist.
There was, for example, Sarkozy’s remark, in his first major foreign policy speech on Aug. 27, that the choice lay only between “the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.” What if Iran isn’t actually seeking nuclear weapons right now? And what right would France, itself the proud possessor of hundreds of nuclear weapons, have to bomb Iran even if that country were also seeking them?
But that kind of hypocrisy is commonplace among the crowd who view a “clash of civilizations” as inevitable. What caused genuine astonishment was Sarkozy’s comments about Africa.
Just a month ago, during a brief visit to Senegal, Sarkozy gave a speech at Cheikh Anta Diop University that was addressed not just to Senegalese but to all “the youth of Africa.” African intellectuals from half a dozen countries instantly condemned it as a warmed-over version of 19th-century French colonial and racist ideology (he never actually said that France has a “civilizing mission” in so many words, but the old phrase hovered over the whole discourse), and there was a certain amount of controversy about it in France as well.
What gave the issue wings, however, was the letter that South African President Thabo Mbeki then wrote to Sarkozy thanking him for the speech and praising him as “a citizen of Africa.” The letter was leaked to the Paris newspaper Le Monde, the South African media erupted (in English), and as a result Sarkozy’s curious views finally got a global audience.
As Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop put it, “A foreign president, looking down on us from his 1.64-meter height, judged the inhabitants of an entire continent, demanding that they finally get away from nature, enter human history and invent themselves a destiny.”
Sarkozy also told his Senegalese audience that colonialism, at least in the French version, had brought Africa many good things, but his main message was that they had to stop being “noble savages” (as he didn’t quite put it) and join the 21st century.
“The problem is that Africans have never really entered history,” Sarkozy told his African audience. “The African peasant who has lived with the rhythm of the seasons for millenniums, whose ideal is to live in harmony with nature, knows only the eternal cycle of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this imaginary world where everything starts over and over again, there is no place for human adventure or the idea of progress.
“In this universe where nature controls everything, (African) man avoids the anguish of history that torments modern man, but he remains immobile, (trapped in) an immutable order where everything seems to be predetermined. He never strikes out for the future.
“It never occurs to him to stop repeating the past and invent a destiny for himself. . . . Africa’s problem is . . . to realize that the golden age which it always dreams of will never return, because it never existed.”
There is a fancy five-syllable word to describe people who think like this: Orientalist. There is a simpler four-syllable word that does the same duty: patronizing. And there is an ugly two-syllable word that sums it up: racist. God knows who vetted Sarkozy’s speech before he gave it, but they are as ignorant as he is. As an analysis of modern Africa’s problems, it is simply pathetic.
Why does Sarkozy talk like this? Because he likes to shock, and he knows his real audience is in France, not in Africa. Also because he doesn’t know history, and he lacks the patience and perhaps even the ability to tolerate complexity and ambiguity.
And why did a man as intelligent as Thabo Mbeki write to congratulate him on his speech? Because that is how things are done behind the scenes. Sarkozy had also said in his speech that France was willing to commit resources to Africa’s “renaissance,” and so the South African president wrote him a letter that ignored all his stupid remarks and thanked him for his promise to help.
“The president, in his gesture of congratulations, did not focus on this sentiment but acknowledged France’s commitment to the development of the Continent and its people,” said presidential spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga.
But in France, it is going to be a long six years.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.