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French Politicians Say the Darndest Things About Colonialism

Miss RDC Dorcas Dienda and François Fillon

Dorcas Dienda and François Fillon, collage from wikipedia pages (CC BY 2.0)

You'll find little in common between François Fillon, the former French prime minister, and Dorcas Dienda, a current contestant in the “Miss DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo]” beauty pageant and a likely candidate in France's presidential election next year. Both individuals, however, were recently forced to step back from social media, following remarks about French colonialism that offended social media users in Africa.

On August 30, Fillon said of colonialism in Africa that France should not “be blamed just for wanting to share and spread its culture to the people of Africa“. The former prime minister made the statement while unveiling his new plan to review and redesign school programs in France, which he believed should emphasize greater national pride.

Fillon's remarks didn't go unnoticed in Africa, where Internet users started spreading the hashtag #PartageDeCultureInFrench (“sharing culture in French”). Africans responded to Fillon on Facebook and Twitter, trying to remind him what France's time as a colonizer meant for them:

Nuclear tests in Reggane: 150 Algerian prisoners used as human guinea pigs

That's “sharing”—a little excursion with friends

La mission civilatrice—the “civilising mission”—1911. See how her chest is covered so as to not shock the uncivilised natives

You bunch of savages know nothing about culture. Well in any case we're still going to keep your works of art in our museums.

Fillion's comments recall France's 2005 law requiring high school faculty to teach the “positive role and values” of colonialism. Martinican historian Gilbert Pago explains how the French elite can also easily cover up an entire part of history:

Nous sommes dans un moment pénible des montées des chauvinismes nationalistes, des poussées populistes du rejet de l’autre, des affirmations de sectarisme racialiste, des replis identitaires ; tout ceci accompagnant la crise mondiale. Mais nous devons nous interroger sur l’esprit de fermeture de dirigeants politiques qui voudraient électoralement surfer sur ce qui est une régression du vivre ensemble. Pour que la France avance, pour que l’Europe aille de l’avant, pour que l’humanité entière se propulse et pour que nous Antillais nous progressions, il faut refuser le « négationnisme » de l’histoire du monde, c’est à dire de notre histoire à toutes et à tous.

We are in a difficult period with the rise of nationalist ideologies and populist, radical sectarianism, which rejects those different from us and boasts inward narrow approaches towards identity. All of this has attached itself to the global crisis. However, we must ourselves question current right-wing, inward looking politicians who politically, want to exploit and cling on to what is a regression towards living together peacefully. In order for France to move forward, in order for Europe to move forward, in order for the whole of humanity to march ahead and in order for us West Indians to continue to make progress, we must reject “historical revisionism”—the denial of world history and what essentially constitutes the denial of our history or any nation's history by any other nation.

In 2007, Alain Manbackou considered France's low reserves of “moral high ground” on the matter:

Après un demi-siècle de décolonisation formelle, les jeunes générations ont appris que de la France, tout comme des autres puissances mondiales, il ne faut pas attendre grand-chose. Les Africains se sauveront eux-mêmes ou ils périront. Pour l’heure, et s’agissant de l’Afrique, il manque tout simplement à la France le crédit moral qui lui permettrait de parler avec certitude et autorité.

After half a century of formal decolonisation, young generations have learnt that, as with all the other global powers, they shouldn't expect much from France. The people of Africa will save themselves or they'll perish. For the time being, when it comes to Africa, France quite simply lacks the moral credit required to talk with certainty and authority.

For Dorcas Dienda, the issue of the colonial period came about quite differently. During the Miss DRC broadcast on August 30, the TV presenter asked her about the issue of “made in the Congo” versus Western branding. Dienda then explained that: “Whites are more intelligent than Blacks“. Here's a clip from the show:

Dienda's comment led to a public outcry on the Congolese Web, and she was soon compelled to explain herself in hastily filmed YouTube clip.

For many, however, Dienda's attempt to clarify her remarks was too little and too late.

#DorcasDiendaOut #AllExceptMissRacist #IAmBlackAndVeryIntelligent !!!

“Whites are more intelligent than Blacks”—what a completely scandelous suggestion. #DorcasDiendaOut

 Inferiority complex, why won't you let go of us ! #DorcasDiendaOut

Incidentally, this is not the first time Africans have faced neglect and disrespect from French public figures. In 2007, for instance, newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy famously said, “Africans have yet to enter modern history“, leading to a similar backlash.

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