North African Dispatches Sarkozy and Africa: a matter of (dis)respect

In his latest column, Imad Mesdoua takes a look at Sarkozy's relationship with former French colonies in North Africa, from his days as a populist interior minister, to his ailing presidency, informed by unreconstructed neo-colonialism, opportunistic interventionism and cultural insensitivity.

New in Ceasefire, North African Dispatches - Posted on Wednesday, June 8, 2011 0:00 - 7 Comments

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By Imad Mesdoua

Nicolas Sarkozy, often said to be the European George Bush (W. evidently), is also considered to be an indelicate and brash statesman. His self-aggrandizing visits to former French colonies throughout his first term have done little to help the country’s increasingly tarnished image abroad.

Connoisseurs will remember his notorious Dakar (Senegal) speech where he was so bold as to lecture an imposing crowd of bewildered dignitaries and history students that the ‘African Man’ had yet to truly ‘enter history’. “A stranger to technological advances”, Sarkozy added, “the African Man lived at the rhythm of the seasons” far from the troubles of global politics and, indeed, History (with a capital H of course). Sadly enough, comments such as these have become a mainstay of Sarkozy’s domestic and foreign speeches.

Diplomatic crises between nations may come and go. Yet no president has done more to generate as many crises as Nicolas Sarkozy has to worsen relations between France and its former North African colonies. Indeed, Sarkozy has come to personify through his words and actions, the worrying and growing disdain which exists in France towards all things foreign or related to immigration. Here are some of Sarkozy’s actions which have alienated and even stigmatized North Africans in France and indeed angered his counterparts across the Mediterranean.

As France’s interior minister, Sarkozy caused quite a stir by visiting the French capital’s poor suburbs or ‘banlieues’. These communities are home to thousands of immigrant workers (many of whom come from North Africa) and their second-generation French offspring. In what was clearly a publicity stunt to pander to the country’s increasingly potent extreme right voters and using terms with striking racial undertones, he labeled the youngsters from said neighborhoods ‘scum’ whom he vowed to ‘hose down’.

Weeks later those same comments were said to have sparked week-long riots across estates outside every major French town. More importantly, the riots came as a response to decades of failed policies. Sarkozy’s comments were the tipping point, the manifestation at the highest level of the French state, of a prevailing idea in French society –though never truly said aloud- which fails to recognize these youth as authentic French citizens.

Elected president in 2007, one would think his new responsibility as a symbol of national unity would put an end to these forms of provocations; think again. Sarkozy followed up on one of his controversial campaign promises to create a ministry of immigration and national identity. Indeed, the creation of said ministry was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many in the Maghreb who, if not convinced earlier, were now certain of the man’s nationalistic/racist stray.

What’s more, Sarkozy and his party (the UMP) have not hesitated to use Islam and immigration from Muslim countries to boost their own standing by generating widespread fear or dislike of minorities. The UMP has recently called for a national debate on “National Identity” which, despite denials to the contrary, has thus far only consisted in debating ways in which Muslims (which in France represent primarily citizens of North African descent/culture) can be ‘assimilated’ to French culture. I have no qualms in saying these methods, other than pandering to the extreme right for electoral purposes, reveal a thinly veiled racism at the highest levels of the French state.

For Algerians, ties with the French have always been thorny. The two countries’ shared and often violent history is often the backdrop to fierce debates at the official and societal levels. Nevertheless, Jacques Chirac (Sarkozy’s predecessor), popular in the eyes of Algerian public opinion, was welcomed by hundreds of thousands on official visits. Cheering crowds, anxious to catch a glimpse of Chirac, lined the streets of the Kasbah, Algiers’ legendary neighborhood (most famously present in Gillo Pontecorvo’s seminal ‘The Battle of Algiers’).

With Sarkozy, this was anything but the case; his relationship with Algerian officials anything but friendly. For starters, the latter have yet to forgive his actions as French interior minister when he was behind the passing of an immensely controversial law that mandated history teachers to promote the “positive effects” of French Colonialism in classrooms. Algeria has been calling, as have other former colonies, for official apologies from the French state for its century long occupation.

These calls have unsurprisingly fallen on Sarkozy’s deaf ears, as he refuses to apologize for something he ‘was not even around to witness’. Moreover, his visits are often described as “hurried”, his discussions with local officials often characterized by contempt or derogatory language from another era. In this context, observers of Franco-Algerian relations now talk of a complete standstill, a long-planned friendship treaty has been postponed indefinitely.

Finally, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans now express similar opposition to Sarkozy and his ways. His reactions to both revolutions in recent months have left France’s image in those two countries in ruins. In the midst of the awe-inspiring Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Sarkozy found it hard to dissociate himself and his government from Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. His Foreign Minister at the time, Michelle Alliot-Marie, even offered, before a live session of parliament, that France send a contingent of police forces to help Tunisian police “handle” the protests.

He also appointed Boris Bouillon to the position of new French ambassador to Tunis. Whilst many thought that his youth, Sarko-boy status and experience in Iraq were the perfect credentials for a successful time in Tunisia, nothing was further from the truth. His first recorded interviews (and off-the-record indiscretions) with the local press made him a local enemy as his bluntness; endless lecturing and moody agitation (reminiscent of Sarkozy himself) left an entire nation feeling insulted.

Months later, Sarkozy would be the first to advocate and spearhead all-out western military intervention in Libya, which obviously contrasted with his earlier support for local regional despot Zine-El-Abidine Ben Ali. These moves have attracted a barrage of criticism from Arab commentators as well as the French left, which sees in Sarkozy’s newfound militarism (both in Libya and more recently in Ivory Coast) as a means by which he can revive his plunging poll numbers.

With France’s presidential elections looming large, going to war was perhaps Sarkozy’s best way to bolster the image of a capable leader but certainly not enough to salvage what have been four wasted years for cooperation and genuine advancement with the countries of the Maghreb. If French governments truly wish to enjoy greater respect from their former North African colonies, it is imperative they permanently dissociate themselves from the patronizing contempt epitomized by the current occupant of l’Élysée.


Imad Mesdoua writes weekly on African and Maghreb affairs for Ceasefire. His interests include politics, current affairs and Real Madrid FC.

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van kaas
Jun 9, 2011 11:23

Chapeau!

Brittany Bolden
Jun 9, 2011 15:09

Nicely put. I definitely agree that Sarko is doing a lot of political pandering and image-bolstering in advance of the French elections, though all politicians are usually guilty of it at some point.

yasmine
Jun 9, 2011 16:28

Your style of writing is elegant and very readable which is refreshing for your kind of topics. I really appreciated the article, very relevant and I believe that if Sarkozy wants to win the next presidential election he definitely needs to relate to the imigrant populations in a more positive way, especially North Africans. However, I highly doubt that that is possible in the little time he has left. The question is, will it really prevent him from winning the next round?

nadia
Jun 9, 2011 20:57

first of all we did miss your sharp opinion on what is happening around us and we welcome the return of North african d
I also would like to thank you for raising and talking about Sarckomania when it come to its relations with Africa;
I believe what have been build during decades when it comes to the politique of France towards Africa in general and noth africa in particular has been destrod by Sarckosy;
he endorssed all radical ideas from ”le Penn Party “” when it comes to issues related immigration or muslim community,he ceated divisions in its own party ,he fired all ministers from arab or african origin and finaaly he was the first to declare war against Lybia and now against syria;s
my question is he doing all this for election purpose or is he really a racist with very radical views?
finally Sarkosy should always remeber that himself is a son of immigrants and was well integrated and welcomed by the frensh society;

MnarviDZ
Jun 10, 2011 19:20

@Imed
Good summary. But I am not sure I agree on Algeria. Chirac was indeed more sympathetic to the Algerian population but it’s not like his sympathy had given them something they lost with Sarkozy. On a state level, the Algerian Pouvoir always plays the French “crisis” card when they feel it suitable, so the Algerian/French relations have never been perfect (perfect here being something like the Moroccan/French situation). But if we look a bit more we’ll find out business is being done regardless of Sarkozy’s declarations/actions. Algeria gave a big contract (Algerian metro) to Alstom which in turn helped Sarkozy keep his word on saving the company. And Raffarin’s multiple visits to Algeria are always followed by many contracts awarded to French companies.

@Yasmine
The French population of North-African descent doesn’t really vote so their electoral weight is… negligible. Things might be different in the future but I wouldn’t bet on that.

@Nadia
Two points:
I wouldn’t say that what France “has built” during decades was positive. It was all (wrong)doings of its Francafrique policy which was a remnant of the colonial system. So although I don’t think at all that Sarkozy has destroyed anything (as I stated above), I wouldn’t mind to see this decades-long relations reshaped on a new basis. Of course Sarkozy’s action wasn’t nil and it probably had some effect but I believe the changes in French position (influence) in Africa is more related to the other players on the ground (China, USA, the rest of Europe, etc.)

The second point is about your last paragraph. In France and in many other European countries, the problem is rarely with horizontal immigration and is always with South-to-North one.

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