Photo Credit: Reuters
“More and more are coming from the third world, taking advantage of our benefits. It’s a choice of civilization. I will be the president of those French who want to continue living in France as the French do.”
— Ms. Le Pen, at the rally in Marseille
I first came across the name “Le Pen” a decade and a half ago when I was an Advanced Level French student at Arundel School. My life then was one of complicated simplicity, one of pink, arched walls and well manicured lawns. Flap jacks and Sun Jam were a somehow a tea time treat. A typical day was punctuated by bells that chimed at 45-minute intervals and regimented by rules that mostly made little sense but were designed to teach us how to submit to authority – not unique training for the young African girl and the threshold of ‘adulthood’ – I use that term generously.
The woman who taught us French, Madame Joscelyne, was an icon of the institution – herself an old girl. To call her a teacher is to minimise her contribution to our view of the world. She didn’t teach. She influenced. She typified the school’s delicious contradictions well – an obsession with the rules and an equal obsession with rebelling against them. I loved this about her. Her trademark look was a sophisticated, foxy, silver bob – strands all perfectly in place) and khaki chinos – relaxed but uptight. She often regaled us with tales of how she used to play strip tennis as a boarder – bad. But she insisted on discipline, hard work and made us watch France 5 – good. She’d tell us that we would never marry the loves of our lives and that they’d somehow always get away – uncertain. Whenever she walked into the classroom, the scent of what I guess must have been Ermenegildo Zegna fell over the room like an unexpected shower of cold rain on an October afternoon – intoxicating and beautiful.
I chose to speak about “Le Racisme” in my final French oral exam. This was pursuant to a French class led by Madame Joscelyne where we explored the rise of the Front National in France and with it, the phenomenon that was Jean-Marie Le Pen. We talked about Le Pen’s desire to restrict immigration to France, his euroscepticism and his emphasis on traditional culture and values. We also looked at unrest on the part of the “banlieue” youths, mostly immigrants from Africa, who saw the French state as the enemy. We learnt that France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, had become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. We tore the issue and its complexities apart and ruminated on possible solutions.
The school had a way of making us believe we were or could be the next leaders of the free world. Mrs Lutalo brought the French revolution to life and Killer Miller opened us up to a world of critiquing revisionist world history. Mrs Gould taught us to write English using the pens of our souls.
It was the best of times and it was the best of times.
The 2017 French Election
Fast forward to 2017. A lot has changed but nothing has changed.
In various parts of the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom, there has been a rise in far right politics characterised by nationalism, an anti-immigration sentiment and an attempt to halt the perceived “left wing” globalization project.
France, paradoxically, was not to be spared.
The 2017 French presidential election was held on 23 April and 7 May 2017. As no candidate won a majority in the first round on 23 April, a run-off was held between the top two candidates, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! and Marine Le Pen of the Front National. Marion Anne Perrine “Marine” Le Pen is a French politician and lawyer. In addition to being the former president of the Front National, she is the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Marine Le Pen expelled her father from the party on the 20th of August 2015 after new controversial statements and found him marginalized in the French political landscape.
Macron won the 2017 French election by a decisive margin on 7 May 2017.
As the world is changing before our eyes and as young Africa, are we striving towards an ideal that is in crisis? Is it time to stop and take stock without any external prompting? Are we stuck between the rock of colonialism and the hard place of autocratic, corrupt, aged, post-colonial leadership? What are we to do?
What lessons can the young African who is curious about where Africa fits on the global stage draw from all this?
Lesson number 1: Youth is good – but it’s not enough to be young
One of the features of Macron’s presidential bid that has fascinated many is his youth. At 39, he will become the youngest President in French history and the youngest French head of state since Napoleon. From an African standpoint, this is a phenomenon to behold. As observed by David E Kiwuwa, an Associate Professor of International Studies at Princeton University, there is something unmistakably common in Africa: the continent’s ageing and long-serving presidents. Africa’s five longest presidencies stretch between 29 and 37 years, adding to a cumulative 169 years. Their longevity in office is matched by their old age, ranging from 71 to 93 years, and a combined 390 years.
Hastings Banda, Malawi’s self-proclaimed president for life, was in his late 90s when he was ousted from office in 1994. Gabon’s Omar Bongo had been president for a record 41 years in 2011 when he died in office at the age of 73. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is 93, making him the oldest leader in the world. As at 2015, Africa’s five longest presidencies were cumulatively 169 years. The average age of the 10 oldest presidents is 78.5, compared to 52 in the most developed countries.
Sitting next to these statistics are figures that show a clear youth bulge in Africa. According to a 2015 CNN report, 85% percent of Angolans were not born when Dos Santos came into power in 1979. 83% of Zimbabweans were born after Mugabe first came into power as prime minister in 1980, while 79% percent of Ugandans were born after Museveni took over power in 1986. On average, only between 15% to 21% of their citizens were alive when these presidents took the reins.
It is no surprise therefore, that most young people feel disconnected from their leaders who mostly hail from an era long past. The ageing face of African governance has led to spirited calls for the young to take over – somehow. This is valid. And hard to contest. However, being young alone is not enough to go the distance as the example of Macron shows. A former civil servant and investment banker, he studied philosophy at Paris Nanterre University, completed a Master’s of Public Affairs at Sciences Po, and graduated from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in 2004. He worked as an Inspector of Finances in the Inspectorate General of Finances and then became an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque. He joined active politics at 29 as a member of the Socialist Party. Macron was appointed as deputy secretary-general under Hollande’s first government in 2012. He was appointed Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs in 2014.
It is evident that Macron is not an ordinary 39 year old. If the young of Africa are to lead, we must be qualified to do so. We must join formal politics. We must acquire public service experience. We must learn that it’s important to start small – to be a councillor or Minister before we can aspire to be the President. We must study public affairs and attain a firm knowledge of the states that succeed and establish why they succeed. We must study philosophy so that when confronted with the hard questions on where Africa stands in a post-colonial world, we have a firm ideology that ensures we do not return to slavery – economic or political in the global arena. We must remember at all times that the ageing leaders we have currently were once young – we must not be a replication of young leadership that has no clear trajectory or plan for progress. We must learn from the mistakes of generations ahead of us, consolidate their gains and move decisively forward.
Youth is good but it is not enough to be young.
Lesson number 2: We cannot run away from Africa forever
A young African woman once said of her African country: dreams die here. The experience of the young person in Africa makes it easy to draw that conclusion. Unemployment, failing economies, hunger, broken public health systems, underdevelopment, disease, political violence, corruption, war, rigged elections and the absence of freedom, fairness and opportunity make the outside world an attractive prospect. African states are often in a position to give the young African just enough to enter and possibly succeed in the first world – a good command of English or French, sound secondary education and a dream for a better life. Leaving Africa to seek ‘greener pastures’ has become the African young person’s coping mechanism to deal with the lack of opportunity back home. But we must be honest with ourselves here: one man’s dream for a better life is another man’s immigration problem.
Immigration has become a strong election theme, the world over. Unrest and armed conflict in the Middle East have contributed to this but so has rising African emigration. We celebrate that Macron won the 2017 election but we must remember that the far right garnered approximately 35% of the vote. We cannot forget that Jean-Marie Le Pen’s goal was to build a vehicle for far-right politics in the post-Nazi era. Zack Beauchamp observes that the essential theory underpinning Le Pen was that while language about white racial superiority had been discredited, fear of difference in general had not. He capitalized on fears about immigration, which had been growing at an unprecedented rate after the war, particularly immigration from nonwhite, primarily Muslim countries like Algeria. In 1984, Le Pen famously warned that “Tomorrow the immigrants will move in with you, eat your soup, and they will sleep with your wife, your daughter, or your son.” Marine Le Pen in the 2017 Presidential debate for her part said “Just watch the interlopers from the world come and install themselves in our home. They want to transform France into a giant squat. But it’s up to the owner to decide who can come in. So, our first act will be to restore France’s frontiers.”
We may not agree with the rise of the far right agenda. However, we must not refuse to engage with it. Plainly put and this is difficult to swallow – the space or opportunity for young people to move abroad is becoming smaller and smaller. It may not be said outrightly – for to do so may be viewed as politically incorrect and possibly racist – but the reality is that a rising number of those who are nationals in the states in which we seek better lives feel we are unduly constraining their resources. The question that they surely ask is – why can’t these people fix their own countries instead of flooding ours? The answers are complex – ranging as they do from the warped legacy of colonialism to the impossible task of removing despotic leaders. We must choose to engage with the complexity and not run away from it.
For now, Macron has stalled the anti-immigration agenda to a degree. However, as the next generation that will govern African and hopefully take it into the future, we must budget for the day that we are openly told we are not welcome in countries that are not ours.
At some point, Africa’s young must stop giving excuses and accept that running away from the intricate problems is like chasing our shadows. The problems will follow us wherever we go – in one form or shape or the other. The African diaspora has an important role to play in rebuilding Africa. But we must always remember that Africa can only be built from the inside out and not from the outside in.
We cannot run away from Africa forever.
Lesson number 3: We must now think continent not just country
It is often said that we can go further together than alone. An interesting feature of Africa is how poorly integrated we are as a continent. There is a large intersection between our respective histories, issues and problems as individual states but not enough unity of purpose on trade policy, conflict resolution, cultural exchange and general movement towards a rewarding and inspirational African project. This is not to say an African Union does not exist. It does. As the successor to the Organisation of African Unity, which was created in 1963 to eliminate the last vestiges of colonialism in Africa, the African Union came into existence in July 2002 at the Durban heads of state summit with the more focused goal of propelling African states towards peace and prosperity as the basis for achieving the ultimate goal of political and economic integration of its member states. The AU was modelled on the European Union with structures that included an Assembly of heads of state/government, an Executive in which countries were represented by their foreign ministers and the AU Commission which is the administrative branch made up of 10 commissioners and headed by a President.
However, the organization remains a white elephant and has not managed to quench the young African’s dream for progress on the continent – economically, politically, socially and culturally.
The example of Macron shows us that it is the responsibility of the young to reform the African Union project and to correct its weaknesses and ensure it works for everyone.
Macron discussed his plans for Europe at a private dinner party in March at the home of a French TV celebrity, attended by Belgium’s 41-year-old Prime Minister Charles Michel and Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, 44. “It was a moment for sharing our commitments on Europe,” Michel told Reuters of the dinner, which was kept secret until word leaked out in April. “In the coming months, we’re going to have to relaunch the European project … and for that we will need partners.”
By the same token, young Africans need to relaunch the African Union project. We need to see more and cheaper inter-Africa flights. We need to bridge the divide between Anglophone and Francophone Africa. We need to tear down our borders and ease migration. We need to optimize our trade model and be genuine about creating economies that work for more than just the political class. We must reconsider our relationship with international financial institutions. We must be wary of nouveau economic colonisers who may be glue in the short term but will turn out to be quicksand in the future. We need to build an African justice mechanism that is genuine about fighting impunity, crimes against humanity and war crimes on the continent. We need to ensure that our leaders hold each other to account – openly and honestly: the African way of silence has not served us well. We need to build the political will that will form the legs upon which all the high sounding declarations and treaties, conventions and protocols can finally stand and yield results. We need to move towards an economic culture of trade not aid – in the dire instances where aid is required, it must not be stolen and corruptly dealt with by the political class. We must stop ignoring and start confronting armed conflict on the continent starting with the DRC and South Sudan. We must invest in infrastructure and build for ourselves the lives we desperately seek when we travel abroad.
When young people move to seek political leadership of their nations, the African project must be high on the list of manifesto priorities.
The next generation of African leaders must think continent, not just country
Anything is possible
And so anything is possible.
As Africans, all too often we deny ourselves the luxury of dreaming. Macron, set up a political party one year ago. His wife was his teacher when he was a teenager and she’s 24 years his senior. Africa must be ready to defy convention and forge its own path if it is to succeed.
It may just be time for the young to to rebel against the authority of the old – clinging fast to African tradition and its lessons but also freeing ourselves from it where it no longer serves us.
Africa’s future is bright and it is young.