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Africans still seething over Sarkozy speech

DAKAR (Reuters) - A month after French President Nicolas Sarkozy laid out his vision for African relations, intellectuals across the continent are still seething over a speech they say may have poisoned a chance for better ties.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (C) and Education Minister Xavier Darcos (L) attend a meeting with teachers at Michel Begon college during a visit for the first day of the new school year in Blois, central France, September 4, 2007. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

During his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since winning power, Sarkozy outraged public opinion in Senegal with a speech in late July laced with allusions to colonialism and the suggestion Africa had failed to embrace progress.

“Maybe he does not realise to what extent we felt insulted,” said Boubacar Boris Diop, one of Senegal’s most prominent contemporary writers.

“Strictly from a political point of view, his speech was a mistake. He will realise that Africans and the negroes from the diaspora will never forgive him.”

For many, the speech represented a squandered opportunity.

When he won power in May elections, African leaders in the French-speaking Maghreb and West Africa rushed to congratulate Sarkozy, who pledged to modernise the European power’s often opaque relations with its former colonies.

“The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history ... They have never really launched themselves into the future,” Sarkozy said in the address at Dakar’s main university, leaving many students opened-mouthed.

“The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words,” he said. “In this realm of fancy ... there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.”

Senegalese newspaper Sud Quotidien branded the speech the next day as “an insult”, echoing the outraged reaction of many students as they left the auditorium.

Alpha Oumar Konare, chairman of the 53-nation African Union Commission, swiftly labelled Sarkozy’s speech as “declarations of a bygone era”.

The speech has since drawn criticism from politicians and intellectuals across Africa who denounced it as unacceptable and based on long-discredited stereotypes. For many, it was a throwback to France’s murky colonial past.


In France, civil rights association DiverCites has said it will present a court case against Sarkozy in the Bordeaux courts for incitement to discrimination, hate and racial violence.

French Secretary of State for Cooperation Jean-Marie Bockel sprang to Sarkozy’s defence in a newspaper column on Tuesday, writing in Le Figaro that the speech’s message was that “the future of Africa belongs firstly to the Africans”.

Acknowledging the address had sparked “a debate”, Bockel said many young Africans agreed with its thrust.

No stranger to controversy, Sarkozy angered many Africans during his tenure as interior minister in former president Jacques Chirac’s government when he organised repatriation flights for illegal migrants -- dubbed “Sarkozy charters”.

During his presidential campaign, however, Sarkozy said he wished to end the system of “Francafrique” -- the backroom, secretive deals between elite groups which has characterised France’s relations with its former African possessions.

Dakar-based political analyst Babacar Justin Ndiaye said the speech was unlikely to alter official relations between France and African nations.

“But a speech with the smell of racism about it will strongly diminish his standing in African public opinion,” Ndiaye said.

Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe, professor at South Africa’s prestigious Witwatersrand university said the attitudes reflected in Sarkozy’s speech were worthy of the 19th century.

“Who gave him the right to talk about Africa and Africans in a manner of a master who has the habit of ill-treating his slave?” Mbembe said in an open letter to Sarkozy.

In the maelstrom of criticism, South African President Thabo Mbeki struck a discordant note with a congratulatory letter to the French president for mentioning the “idea of African Renaissance”, which Mbeki champions.

The South African leader, a long-term exile under the apartheid regime, even hailed Sarkozy as “a citizen of Africa”, raising howls of derision from the local press.