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Marie Darrieussecq

Conférence en anglais donnée au centre Africana Studies de l’université d’Arizona en 2012.

Emmelene Landon helped for the translation.

See also et le site de France culture


Masque pounou, achté dans la forêt à la frontière Gabon Cameroun
Masque pounou, achté dans la forêt à la frontière Gabon Cameroun

Every Tuesday morning I have a chronicle on the French national radio

station France Culture. Just last week the guest of the day was Henri Guaino,

President Sarkozy’s special adviser. In 2007, soon after Sarkozy was

elected, Henri Guaino wrote a speech addressed to young Africans that

was delivered by Sarkozy in a university in Dakar, Senegal. This very

controversial speech – that is also greatly admired by certain people

– is known as the “Dakar speech”.


Henri Guaino considered my quoting his own sentences in the electoral

context as “dishonest, improper and disgraceful”: he was there the radio on

Nicolas Sarkozy’s speaking time as a candidate. Our live argument on

the radio and his edginess about what he felt was impertinence on my

behalf created a small scandal. It seemed to me to be quite the

opposite, and I thought it was most appropriate and legitimate, now

that the government’s track record has to be made, to remind the

person who had advised the President of the Republic for five years

about his own words.


The same president, Nicolas Sarkozy, delivered a magnificent speech on

slavery in May 2011. These two speeches, as contradictory as they may

be, are accessible on the Elysée’s website, for those who would like

to read them.


Before going any further, here's the chronicle I gave on the radio and that

annoyed the President’s adviser so much:


The Dakar speech begins by criticizing the ravages of colonization and

slavery, which takes up ten percent of the entire text, to remind us

that colonization also brought “bridges, roads, hospitals, free

clinics, schools and fertility to barren lands,” and to conclude by

stating that “For better and for worse, colonization has transformed

the African man and the European man.”


Already, I think it’s quite questionable to place on an equal base the better

and the worst of colonization. If colonization were a marriage, it

would be a forced one. Henri Guaino, in the beginning of his speech,

quotes a poem by Aimé Césaire. So let’s go back to Césaire, to one of

his own speeches: his Discourse on Colonialism, in 1950.Césaire was

already mentioning the “disloyalty,“ as he put it, of the colonialist

clichés, that would “legitimize a posteriori by the obvious material

progress” the systematic sacking of colonial enterprise. As for Henri

Guaino, he continued by stating that “All colonists were not thieves,

all colonists were not exploiters.” As if the fact that some

individuals were not bastards  exempted colonialism from being a

general plundering; another classic legitimization that Césaire had

identified in his times.


The remaining ninety percent of the Dakar speech contains two

principal ideas: praise for the African man close to childhood and

nature, and friendly encouragement for him to come out of his

immobility. I quote Henri Guaino, Président Sarkozy's special adviser :


“I came to tell you that modern man who feels the need to

be reconciled with nature has much to learn from African man who has

been living in symbiosis with nature for thousands of years.” (…)

“Africa’s drama is that African man hasn’t come into History enough.

The African peasant, who has been living with the seasons for

thousands of years and whose ideal for life is to be in harmony with

nature, only knows the eternal cycle of time in rhythm to the endless

repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this world

where everything is always repeating itself, there is no place for

human adventure or for the idea of progress. In this universe where

nature rules over everything, Man escapes from the anguish of History

that torments modern Man, and Man remains immobile in the midst of an

unchanging order in which everything seems to have been inscribed

beforehand. Never could Man throw himself into the future. Never could

he have the idea of stepping out of the repetition to invent his own

destiny. The problem with Africa – and allow a friend of Africa to say

so – is there.” End of quotation.


Césaire of course has a totally different explanation for “Africa's

drama”: “the greatest historical drama of Africa,” he wrote, “is less

its being too late to establish contact with the rest of the world,

rather than the way this contact was made: Europe "propagated" itself at a time

when Europe fell into the hands of bankers and the most unscrupulous

industrial tycoons; our bad luck was meeting this Europe along our

way, and Europe is accountable for the highest heap of corpses before

the human community.”


Césaire speaks of the historic moment from his point of view in 1950;

whereas the Dakar speech is inspired by the bicentennial theses of

Hegel in Reason in History (on the African Man close to childhood,

magic and nature, inaccessible to reasoning and to the movement of

History). An imagery that ends up, for better, in traditional clichés

and, for worse, with  Gobineau’s idea that “History only exists in

white nations.”


I ended my chronicle by a last quote from the presidential speech

delivered before the students and teachers in the Dakar university:

“Africa reminds all the peoples of the earth that we have shared the

same childhood. Africa has aroused the simple joys, ephemeral

happiness and the need (…) to believe rather than to understand, the

need to feel rather than to reason, and to be in harmony rather than

to conquer.”


This long speech tries to be awkwardly generous, but it is totally

discredited by the stupefying resurgence of clichés we would have

thought were long bygone. A French-Senegalese professor in Oxford, Hélène Neveu,

told me she had translated certain passages in

English from the speech and asked her students to date them. Their

answer was “in the middle of the nineteenth century,” in any case they

didn’t think the “author was posterior to Cecil Rhodes” (Cecil Rhodes

founded the Cape colony in the late nineteenth century, as well as

Rhodesia, named after him).


France, according to Henri Guaino’s vision, is turned towards itself

and a vision of Africa that ignores modernity. Who, in France, reads

Wole Soyinka (Nobel prize winner in 1986) or his contemporary Chinua

Achebe, to mention only them? Why is there this Francophone obstinacy

to remain withdrawn in our own narrow vision of the world, when

Nigeria, South Africa and all the black diaspora take an active part

in the invention of globality? Henri Guaino refers to Senghor and to

Césaire, but it is a selective recourse: it is the pantheonized

Césaire and not the Césaire of virulent speeches; it is the Senghor

who read Teilhard de Chardin, the Senghor of “Negritude”, who wanted

African man to participate in the civilization of the Universal

through his “sensitivity,” “cosmic rhythm” and “intuitive Reason” as

opposed to “logical Reason.” This “anti-racist racism”” (according to

Sartre’s expression) and this essentialization of African Man have

been greatly criticized by the Africans themselves, starting with



The English colonizers never tried to “assimilate” their colonized as

the French did (their violence was in radical separation). Which is why

the francophone poets Senghor and Césaire had to affirm to the French people that they were indeed black. This heritage determines the typically French

embarrassment today about the apprehension and the designation of

those who are perceived as others. Embarrassment that leads to

expressions such as “people of Muslim appearance”, said by Nicolas Sarkozy on

French radio last week, but also to François Hollande’s proposition to take the

word “race” out of the French constitution; a complex proposition that, while

trying to avoid discrimination, would also risk nourishing the

confusion in French discourse on so called “diversity.”


To crown it all, this Dakar speech in July 2007 was delivered at the Cheik

Anta Diop University; who is precisely the researcher who inaugurated

historiology from the African point of view. It is incredible to have

to remind top-level politicians that African History does actually

exist, written differently, with many African and European authors to

resurrect and unfurl it. We should really be asking ourselves why a

certain Europe needs to believe that Africa has no History.*


“ Contempt springing from so much ignorance,” wrote Mamadou Diouf,

“the most wretched clichés of colonial ethnology,” wrote Boubacar

Boris Diop, both Senegalese, “an obsolete intellectual heritage,

almost a century old,” wrote the Cameroonian Achille Mbembe… As very

alive authors who reacted immediately to the Dakar speech, and who do

not need a European to come and explain Africa to them, and who cannot

be suspected of reducing their vision to a victimized reading. Many of

them denounced this President of the French Republic who had come to

African soil to urge the young to “decide” on democracy, without

saying a word about France-Africa, about the scandals, about the

collision of political and petrochemical interests, and about the French

supporting the "Satraps" in a “system of reciprocal corruption”

(Mbembe). And what about the sentence uttered by Sarkozy in this speech : “I haven’t come here to speak to you about repentance,”  : shouldn’t that be for the ex colonized to decide?



*On these subjects, one can read the works of Catherine Coquery

Vidrovitch, a historian on Africa, in her Petite histoire de l'Afrique

published by La Découverte (2010) ;

L'Afrique répond à Sarkozy, collective edition assembled by Philippe

Rey and another collective under the direction of Jean-Pierre Chrétien

: l'Afrique ou le déni d'histoire, published by Karthala.