“The end result of the strong backlash against Macron will likely be an unwillingness among politicians to even address or talk about the issues.”
The last week has seen a firestorm of controversy regarding French President Emmanuel Macron and his comments regarding development in Africa. Once a darling of various “Anti Trump” segments of our global society, Macron is suddenly finding himself an outcast, under attack for allegedly being a “racist,” or at best a tone-deaf post-colonialist.
The French President’s victory this past May was viewed by many as a push back against the “Trump-style” populism that has upset the political order in both the United States and the United Kingdom. However, as a political moderate, Macron has also been accused by some as being more of the same old pro-corporate neoliberal political order that has turned off so many voters around the world.
Before quoting Macron’s full statement, it is important to mention how exceedingly difficult it was to even find the statement translated into English. Countless websites offered their own analyses of the statements, parsing out lines here and there. Yet only a few were willing to post the full quote. This itself is part-and-parcel of the way the media (including both left and right leaning sources) manipulates society at large. Misquoting and selective parsing of statements is a favorite media past-time.
Anyways, here’s the original question and what Macron said (translated from French):
Ivory Coast Reporter: “The G20 have discussed the issue of poverty in Africa. We know that the Marshall plan in Europe cost 150 billion of today’s dollars. Concretely, how much are the G20 countries willing to commit to Africa today and what is France’s position on the matter?”
Macron: “I don’t believe in this reasoning, forgive me for my directness. We among the West have been discussing such Marshall plans for Africa for many years and have in fact given many such plans already. So, if it was so simple it would be fixed already. The Marshall plan was a reconstruction plan, a material plan in a region that already had its equilibriums, its borders, and its stability.
The problems Africa face are completely different and are much different and are “civilizational.” What are the problems? Failed states, complex democratic transitions, and extremely difficult demographic transitions. Multiple trafficking routes that pose severe issues – drugs, human trafficking, weapons. Violent fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism. All of these create major issues in a region that at the same time has some examples of excellent growth that prove the continent is a land of opportunity.
So, if we want a serious answer to African issues and African problems, we must develop a series of politics that are much more sophisticated than a simple Marshall plan or money transfer, which we agree with the World Bank on. The matters of vital infrastructure, education, health – there are roles for financing and it is our responsibility to help on these issues. In terms of security, we must help by linking with regional African stability instruments which France is currently engaging in with the Sahel nations. Development, security – and there is also a shared responsibility.
Such a Marshall plan as you desire is also a plan that will be administered by African governments and regional blocs. It’s by a more rigorous governance, a fight against corruption, a fight for good governance, a successful demographic transition when countries today have seven or eight children per woman. As of today, spending billions of dollars outright would stabilize nothing. So, the transformation plan that we have to conduct together must be developed according to African interests by and with African leaders. It must be a plan that must take into account the issues I’ve described, using public private partnerships, and must be conducted on a regional and sometimes even national basis.”
Main Stream Media Parsing Quotes and Freaking Out
The three biggest “issues” many have taken with Macron were his statements over large family size, the use of the word “civilizational”, and his lack of mention of colonization as a root-cause for Africa’s current problems.
Before going any further, I’d like to mention that I wrote my own article that talks about “Africa” in general. This is due to the nature of Macron’s statements, and the main stream media criticisms against him. Africa is far from monolith, and each country is unique, presenting its own challenges. I won’t be addressing or even really discussing those here, rather, I will address the issues taken up by people over Macron’s statement specifically.
Africans Have Large Families
First is the outrage over Macron’s mention of women with seven or eight children. Yes, the comment was crass, but the point is relevant. According to the World Health Organization, there are nearly 20 sub-Saharan African nations with birthrates equal to or exceeding 5 children per woman. Large family sizes lead to nuanced challenges in development. Additionally, limited resources, global high unemployment, and changes in the agricultural industry, among many other factors, mean large families can be an increasing burden for the modern family.
Historically, large families were an asset. Children meant more labor on the farm, and social security for aging parents later in life. Meanwhile, mortality rates were once very high, and deaths, especially among young children, used to be more common. A mother might have seven children, but only three of them might reach adulthood and have children of their own. Conditions have changed dramatically over the past few decades. What was once an asset could now be a burden for many. More kids equal more mouths to feed.
Why people are so outraged at Macron’s indelicate but relevant comment is beyond me.
“Civilizational” Remark Remains Unclear
Macron used the word “civilizational” when discussing Africa’s problems. What exactly this word has to do with economic development, and what he meant by it remains unclear. I’ve worked in and studied international development, and have never heard the word civilizational used in a development context. Some commenters have suggested that he used the term to imply that Europe’s civilization is superior, while Africa’s is inferior. As I can’t read Macron’s mind (or French for that matter) I can’t fully refute that claim.
However, reading Macron’s full statement, which mentions various problems, including failed democracies and religious extremism, it seems that Macron most likely meant “fundamental” problems. Various African nations are facing a huge range of deeply seeded and fundamental issues. Macron, at the very least, recognized that Africa’s problems are complex and will be difficult to address through development programs. Difficult doesn’t mean impossible, but it does mean that programs must be custom tailored and well-managed.
Interestingly, Macron concluded by acknowledging that any solutions would have to be developed “according to African interests and with African leaders.” Earlier, he had cited Africa as a land of opportunity.
Macron Has Already Acknowledged Colonization, and Wasn’t Asked About it at G20
As for colonization, it’s important to remember that the journalist originally asked the French President a question specifically about the Marshall Plan. He gave an answer that focused on that question. Yes, acknowledging colonization would have been a smart move on Macron’s part, but he wasn’t asked about it.
Out here in the real world, it’s not always appropriate to expound about the historical causes of modern problems because, quite simply, history lessons won’t solve today’s issues, at least on their own. And when you’re at a press conference and someone asks you a question, is it really so “criminal” to stay on point? Macron was not asked about the root causes of Africa’s problems, of which colonization would be the elephant in the room. He was asked about a modern-day Marshall Plan, a closely related but separate topic.
Macron has already acknowledged that France’s past colonialization is a “crime against humanity” and involved “crimes and acts of barbarism.” Macron’s statements on France’s colonization have been among the most frank, forward, and honest of any leading French politician. Yet, the very same “left” that Macron hails from is eating him alive over his rather insightful reply on the Marshall Plan and Africa simply because he stayed on point.
A Marshall Plan Simply Won’t Work for Africa
A Marshall Plan won’t work for Africa. Why? The plan was instituted half a century ago under vastly different circumstances in a very different place, at a time when the world itself was vastly different. And yes, “different” is the key word here. When it comes to international development and aid, each approach has to be custom tailored to local circumstances, something that Macron himself acknowledged.
Of course, the mainstream media and the world’s every burgeoning class of armchair know-all experts would rather freak out over Macron staying on point and being frank. The real lesson here for politicians is that it’s best to avoid touchy subjects, and to only offer simple, pithy, and unassailable remarks. The end result of the strong backlash against Macron will likely be an unwillingness among politicians to even address or talk about the issues. Many will likely conclude that it’s better to sweep such issues under the rug.