By Siddhartha Mitter
In his speech to “Africa’s youth” in Ouagadougou, last November, France’s president Emmanuel Macron made a big deal of his plans to promote the French language around the world, with advice from African thinkers and others. Two weeks later, he invited Alain Mabanckou—the celebrated Congolese novelist and essayist—to take part.
But Mabanckou—who divides his time between Paris and Los Angeles, where he is a professor at UCLA—said non. In an open letter to Macron that ran on January 15 in the French magazine L’Obs, he rejected the whole venture. The French language is not under threat, he argues. Instead, La Francophonie—the Paris-based organization with 57 member countries, roughly equivalent to the Commonwealth—and other initiatives predicated on shared French language serve France’s political interests and those of African repressive elites.
Mabanckou, 51, is perhaps the most prominent Francophone African novelist of his generation, and the most visible in French literary circles. A winner of several major prizes including the prestigious 2006 Prix Renaudot for his novel Memoirs of a Porcupine, he was invited to give a lecture series at the Collège de France in 2016, a pinnacle of intellectual recognition. He grew up in Pointe-Noire, Congo Republic, and has authored ten novels and several poetry collections. He has taught at UCLA since 2006.
As Mabanckou sees it, Macron’s Africa policy, so far, is the same old wine in a new bottle. Instead of gathering intellectuals in commissions, he suggests Macron listen to young Africans and stop propping up the dictators who “hold Africa’s future hostage.”
QZ: You’re a significant figure in French letters and public culture. It’s not everyone who gives lectures at the prestigious Collège de France! Given your influence, why turn down president Macron’s invitation?
AM: I wrote to tell president Macron that I would not take part in his project on the French language and Francophonie because I truly felt, in my conscience, that Africa’s future was once again being held hostage.
You wrote that the French language isn’t really threatened, and that La Francophonie mostly serves to uphold repressive regimes. Connecting the dots, does that mean the question of the French language is used cynically for neo-colonial purposes?
AM: Yes, I think Francophonie operates as a form of colonial control. The organization never challenges African dictators who manipulate constitutions or rig elections to stay in power forever, or until the people overthrow them. I think the real issue isn’t the future of the French language, but what to do so that African youth no longer live under these regimes, with no hope for their future. France still welcomes these dictators, and the Francophonie organization never criticizes these systems that date back to our so-called independence. It’s a neo-colonial situation, and it’s time to expose it.
Macron often mentions Francophone writers and thinkers by name. Among current writers, he has said how much he admires Leïla Slimani and yourself. Do you feel he uses you as a token, rather than engaging seriously with your work and ideas?
AM: The point shouldn’t be to drop names, but to seriously engage with Francophonie. I appreciate that president Macron belongs to a younger generation. If he wanted to, he could really shake things up. But his actions don’t match his words. To deal with Francophonie we need to identify the real stakes and address them. The threat to the French language is France itself, because it has no clear policy on the matter.
Has French policy toward Africa changed since Macron’s election last year?
AM: Many Africans believed Macron would change French policy, but he’s mostly dealing with the figures who have contributed to the continent’s decline. When it comes to democracy and freedom of expression, he’s kept vague—or silent.
The French language, the social and business ties of African elites with France, the CFA common currency—all these things connect. Is there any benefit at all to shared language and public culture, or is it totally bound up with neo-colonial hegemony?
AM: There can be productive exchange as long as we realize how much African leaders have profited from neo-colonialism. We’re economically dependent. The currency is increasingly contested. We need to reinvent our states. Once we finally practice democracy, we can get to balanced relations with the former colonizers.
The most radical answer has come from Rwanda, where they’re getting rid of French altogether in favor of English. Is that what it will take to get out of Francophonie’s perverse cycle of domination?
AM: Rwanda is a special case. It has tense relations with France, not just because of the 1994 genocide but due to previous interventions. On the other side, there are countries that are bringing French back, such as Mauritius. I avoid radical postures: The French language is varied, plural, diverse, and we don’t need France’s permission to create with it. Rwanda took a political decision, which I respect. But there will still be Rwandan authors who write in French.
One major cost of this state of affairs is the inhibiting effect on cultural and economic ties between Francophone and Anglophone neighbors. If it’s in the interest of both France and Francophone elites to keep things as they are, what is the way forward for real integration between Francophone and Anglophone countries?
AM: We need more dialogue between Francophone and Anglophone spaces. It’s what I’ve done for years with colleagues like Abdourahmane Waberi or Souleymane Bachir Diagne—or long before us, Maryse Condé and Edouard Glissant—all teaching in U.S. universities, confronting our experience with the English-speaking world. We need to do this in African universities as well, as Achille Mbembe is doing in South Africa. And this extends to Portuguese-speaking and Spanish-speaking Africa.
Have you heard back from president Macron?
AM: The letter doesn’t require a reply. The best response the president of France could offer would be to take seriously the demands of young Africans, who do not want the institutions of Francophonie to serve any longer as the dining table where the dictators who hold the continent hostage gather and eat.
This interview was conducted in French, then translated and lightly condensed.
About the Author:
Siddhartha Mitter writes on culture and politics. He is an arts writer for the Village Voice and has recent work in The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, and other outlets. Mitter has worked and reported extensively in Francophone and Anglophone West Africa. Twitter: @siddhmi.