France’s long struggle to acknowledge the iniquities of its imperial past has taken another significant step forward with President Emmanuel Macron’s declaration on a visit to the Ivory Coast that colonialism was a “grave mistake”.
Mr Macron’s choice of words on Saturday recalled previous comments, notably including a famous admission in another former French territory, Algeria, while campaigning for office, that colonisation was a “crime against humanity”.
But the tone was unequivocal. As he stood alongside the president Alassane Ouattara, in the Ivorian capital, Abidjan, there was no attempt to qualify the recognition of colonial sins by insisting, as he had done in Algiers in 2017, that it was important not to “sweep away all of the past” or descend into a culture of self-guilt.
He emphasised the “more respectful” relationship with Africa to which he said France was committed. The only qualification in his remarks was a reminder that French military intervention in the continent was not a form of neo-colonialism but took place only when requested by the countries concerned, a reference to Mali and Burkina Faso in particular, though he named neither.
In a strong symbolic gesture, the French and Ivorian presidents announced major reform of the CFA franc, seen as a relic of “France-Afrique”, the post-colonial strategy originally intended by the former French president Charles de Gaulle to maintain France’s global prominence, promoting and defending France’s interests in areas of the continent considered at risk of falling under American or British influence.
The currency is to be replaced by the eco, a currency that fifteen West African countries agreed to adopt in June, in several of France’s former African territories.
Mr Macron said: “I want to engage France in a historic and ambitious reform of the cooperation between the West African economic and monetary union and our country. With the reform of the CFA franc, we are taking a big step to writing a new page in our relationship with Africa.”
“France-Afrique” was a phrase coined not by de Gaulle but an Ivorian leader, Felix Houphouety-Boigny, who combined campaigning for independence with encouraging warm relations with the colonial power. But it came to be criticised by opponents of France foreign policy as an unwanted remnant of a fading empire dating from the 16th century that once stretched from the Pacific and south-east Asia to the western shores of Africa and the Caribbean.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, France had the largest empire after Britain’s, covering 11.5 million square kilometres and a total population of 110 million. After the war, independence movements began to reduce the extent of French rule, violently in Indochina and Algeria and peacefully, or with limited conflict, elsewhere.
But there have been major obstacles to the process of decolonisation and changing a historic mindset that France had a right and obligation to spread its language, culture and Catholic religion to under-developed corners of the world.
Even as the empire was dismantled, with most of the African colonies granted independence in 1960, there was resistance. De Gaulle survived several assassination attempts by extremists hostile to his willingness to grant independence to Algeria, which was finally freed from French rule in 1962 after a bloody war.
Another former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, caused uproar in former French colonies when the ruling centre-right UMP party of which he was president used its parliamentary majority to pass a law recognising the “positive role” of French colonialism in 2005.
An open letter from two leading French Caribbean writers, Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, published in the communist newspaper L’Humanite, accused France of trying to dodge its responsibilities for a policy that had operated “totally to its advantage and deserves only condemnation”.
Later, as president, Mr Sarkozy admitted there had been “errors and injustices” in colonialism but was unable to shake off the suspicion of some African countries that he was still too ready to defend aspects of French rule.
After Mr Macron’s earliest denunciation of France’s colonial history, three months before he was elected head of state in 2017, his centre-left rival Francois Fillon said his words were “unworthy of a presidential candidate”.
Marion Marechal, granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far right Front National (since rebranded as National Rally), and niece of its leader, Marine Le Pen, mocked him as "the candidate of the elites, the banks, the media and repentance".
But, in his latest initiative, Mr Macron appears intent on eliminating the last vestiges of an outlook summed up by the statesman Jules Ferry, twice French prime minister and a champion of colonial expansion, in an 1885 speech stressing the right of “superior races” to establish colonies because they had “a duty to civilise the inferior races”.