When France won the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a running joke developed that it was the African Union that had actually won. This was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that more than half of the French team was made up of players of African heritage. “Not all of those folks look like Gauls to me,” Barack Obama quipped a day later in South Africa.
For most people on the continent, it was an apolitical statement, a nod to the kindred spirit that connects all the children of the soil. It was also an implicit source of consolation, a reminder that even though all African teams had been knocked out before the semi-finals, Africa had still made it to the finals and lifted the trophy through her uprooted sons.
In much of the rest of the world, its political undertones immediately burst to the surface, as they always do, in the form of heated arguments on the internet. For instance, when South African Comedy Central host Trevor Noah tweeted his congratulations to Africa for the win, it did not quite go down well with the French part of his audience.
The bone of contention was that, by attributing the win to Africa, Noah had denied the Frenchness of the players. This was no small matter, the critics thought, because France was not just a multiracial country, but an a-racial one. Even if the players might not have looked like Gauls to Obama, he insisted that “[…] they’re French. They’re French.”
In primary school, we were taught about some of the tactics colonial powers used to entrench their control over parts of Africa. We learnt that the French, unlike the British and Germans, adopted a method known as assimilation. This meant that they actively set out to turn their colonial subjects into Frenchmen.
I did not understand what this meant exactly, mainly because I was quite young. Besides, the concept came without its normative elements. It was abstract, an answer to be crammed for exams. I am still relatively young, but I think I am starting to understand what it means. I think the controversy over who had won the World Cup was emblematic of the consequences of France’s approach to Africa.
In the history of mankind, communities have assimilated one another as often as they have split apart. Within my own community, the Luo of Kenya, a process of assimilation of Bantu Suba immigrants from Uganda has been in full swing for almost a century. On the flip side, some of my ancestors, the Luo peoples of Uganda were assimilated by Bantu Baganda immigrants. Now, little remains of them except the royal dynasty.
What stands out in many of these stories is that, to the best of my knowledge, none of these communities set out to assimilate the other. Instead, by progressively settling common territories, some cultures gradually subsumed the others, so that a new people, with a distinct identity, arose out of the mixture.
Of course, history is also replete with stories of communities that attempted to forcefully assimilate others. The tales recounted in the Old Testament books of the Maccabees, for example, document how the Seleucid Empire spurred a bitter Jewish rebellion by trying to impose its Hellenism on all the communities over which it held sway.
To intentionally assimilate another culture often requires the denigration of the culture that is to be assimilated, coupled with an exaltation of the preferred culture. Instead of the new culture showing its merits in the marketplace of ideas, it is propped up by power structures. Intentional assimilation cannot be accomplished without totalitarianism.
All modern colonial governments have attempted this, in some form or other, with varying degrees of success. It gave rise to historical injustices against native peoples from the Americas to Australia. In Kenya, it means that we grew up under the spectre of being spanked for speaking our mother tongues in school, as if there was something shameful about talking in the manner of our ancestors.
In the case of the French colonies in Africa, it was tuned up to the nines. Perhaps inspired by the esteem French culture had enjoyed in Europe during the Enlightenment, the colonial state put its own culture on a pedestal and offered it as the summit of all civilisation. The colonial project was a mission civilisatrice, a mission to civilise backward natives.
By adopting the French language and French customs, native Africans could become French. And becoming French meant gaining access, at least in theory, to all the attendant rights and duties. To adopt French culture was to become an évolué, to evolve to a higher plane of existence. Official policy had no room for an intercultural dialogue, nor space for an organic inculturation of French elements into African life.
African culture was inferior, and had to be entirely replaced. As a kid, I used to wonder why historical photos of educated African men from French colonies showed them with weird haircuts, featuring a bare strip shaved along one side of the crown of the head. Once I started to understand assimilation, I realised it was an attempt to make their hair, their very thick and curly African hair, look French.
The problem is that the theory never really translated into reality, beyond funny haircuts and speaking French with strong “r” sounds. France was still a colonial power, and its practical interests had nothing to do with civilisation. They were imperial, and that meant the colonies were both a source of wealth and a status symbol for France. And they meant that France had a reason to extend its control for as long as it could.
It is against this backdrop that the controversy over the French identity of the members of the French football team gains its true dimensions. Because the insistence on the fact that they are purely French, and nothing more, flies in the face of the reality of France’s present and historical relations with the countries that once made up its African empire.
Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than an event that took place towards the end of 2019. On November 26th, a helicopter collision caused the death of thirteen French soldiers who were part of a French military mission in the Sahel. In response, President Macron announced that “the leaders of five West African nations (Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad)… should come to France on December 16 to provide clarifications.”
Now, of course, we know that Monsieur Macron is in the habit of periodically inserting his well-heeled foot into his mouth. But, even if we discount his personal tendencies, the framework that permitted him the temerity to summon the presidents of independent African countries to France, like naughty schoolboys to detention, predates him.
It is the structure that has allowed France to maintain an outsized influence on the political, economic and social trajectory of its former African colonies. France, in the controversial words of Italian minister Luigi di Maio, “never stopped colonising tens of African states.” France’s mission civilisatrice never ended.
France retains control over the economies if these countries, partly through the CFA Franc, a currency instituted during colonial times and preserved past independence and past France’s adoption of the Euro. Through it, France has maintained a direct role in shaping the monetary policy of these countries. They even have their reserves held in the France Reserve Bank, rather than by their own central banks.
Politically, France has historically propped up dictatorships across the continent. It has also fomented a tonne of coups. So many, in fact, that most of the coups in Africa have been in Francophone countries. Anti-France sentiment, however expressed, is often a sign that a ruler has reached the end of his usefulness.
Coming as I do from the Anglophone part of this continent, there are elements of the Francophone African experience that I cannot claim to know or to have experienced first-hand. France’s relations with the rest of the continent, moreover, have been rather benign, if not beneficial. The electricity that powers these keystrokes comes from a rooftop solar powerplant which was installed with a low-interest loan from the French government.
But my conversations with people from the Francophone parts of Africa have featured a litany of complaints against France’s heavy hand in how their countries are run. The French won’t leave them alone, and they have to pretend they are OK with it, because France, officially at least, claims that it is dealing with them as equals.
And that, if I may be allowed a sweeping generalisation, is where France goes wrong. The country is certainly right in maintaining in its official policy that all human beings are equal, that people of all colours can be Frenchmen. But, in practise, it uses this as a cloak to conceal the dagger of continued exploitation, and does not tolerate any criticisms of its role in the instability and poverty of its former colonies.
It also defines Frenchness in a rather rigid way, so that it has no place for the multiple other identities that a French person may draw from. As Trevor Noah offered in defending his congratulations to Africa for winning the World Cup, “When I am saying, ‘They are African,’ I am not saying it as a way to exclude them from their Frenchness, but using it as a way to include them in my Africanness.”
For as long as France doesn’t recognise this, there will always be a massive difference between its official ideals and the situation on the ground. The mission civilisatrice was degrading of Africa when it was conceived. It is degrading even now.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya and his article is printed with permission