French President Emmanuel Macron said Saturday that “colonialism was a grave mistake” and called for “turning the page” on the past during a visit to Ivory Coast, a former French colony.
Macron, speaking in Ivory Coast’s main city Abidjan, said France was still often seen as maintaining a “hegemonic view and the trappings of colonialism”, which he said was “a grave mistake – a fault of the Republic”.
“I belong to a generation which was not that of colonisation,” he added.
“The African continent is a young continent,” he said. “Three-fourths of your country never knew colonialism,” he continued, addressing the Ivoirian audience, and called on African youth to “build a new partnership of friendship with France”.
Macron made the comments during a press conference alongside Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, soon after the announcement that the CFA franc currency used by eight West African countries (almost all of them former French colonies) would be transformed into the “eco” and largely severed from French governance.
The CFA franc has long been criticised as a vestige of French colonialism. It was first pegged to the French franc and later the euro. France also played an important role in governing the currency and required that 50 percent of reserves be held in the French treasury. The eco will reverse these policies but will still be pegged to the euro.
During his election campaign, Macron created a storm of controversy in France by calling the colonisation of Algeria a “crime against humanity”. In a 2017 TV interview, he said French actions in Algeria, which achieved independence in 1962 after eight years of war, were “genuinely barbaric, and constitute a part of our past that we have to confront by apologising”.
Call for greater ‘political clarity’ from G5 Sahel
Macron’s joint press conference with Ouattara came in the context of a West African visit dominated by security concerns. Macron arrived in Ivory Coast on Friday to celebrate Christmas with French soldiers, even as a renewed jihadist insurgency has raised questions about the effectiveness of French and UN troops in the region.
In Abidjan on Saturday, Macron called for greater “political clarity” from Sahel countries hosting French troops fighting Islamist militants. Ivory Coast is not part of the G5 Sahel, the group of countries cooperating in France’s anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane, but hosts a separate French operation.
“We need the political conditions to accompany the military work we do,” Macron told troops from the 900-strong French contingent serving in the country. “I cannot ask our soldiers to take risks to fight against terrorism... and on the other hand have public opinions of these same countries believing in untruths.”
“France is not there with imperial intentions,” Macron said. “It doesn’t have an economic agenda, as is sometimes said.”
The leaders of the anti-jihadist G5 Sahel military alliance are due to attend a summit in France on January 13, when Macron said they would clarify the “political and strategic framework” of the operation after tensions emerged.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Saturday told French television that the G5 leaders – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad – will deliver a message demanding a “respectable and respectful” relationship with the former colonial power.
In a separate speech to the French community in Ivory Coast, Macron said 33 “terrorists” had been “neutralised” in neighbouring Mali. French soldiers also released two Malian gendarmes being held by jihadists, Macron added.
The operation involving teams of commandos and attack helicopters in the flashpoint city of Mopti in central Mali came just weeks after 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash as they pursued jihadists in the country’s north.
Despite a French troop presence and a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Mali, the conflict that erupted in 2012 has engulfed the centre of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
“This considerable success shows the commitment of our forces, the support that we bring to Mali, to the region and to our own security,” Macron said.
“We have had losses, we also have victories this morning thanks to the commitment of our soldiers and Operation Barkhane,” he said.
Last month’s crash was the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades, dealing a further blow to troop morale in an operation that has already faced severe criticism from G5 Sahel members.