Against Macron's extreme centrism: reading against the grain of colonial alienation

File: French President Emmanuel Macron has come under fire for comments he made about African women. Photo: Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

In The Extreme Centre: A Warning (2015), Tariq Ali warns about the sort of politics currently being embraced around the world. These are political programmes presented as ‘reasonable’, as amiable ‘alternatives’ to fascism on the right, and what is sketched as 'radicalism' on the ‘extreme left’. Ali unmasks this elaborated set of ideological lies, outlining the doleful and apocalyptic political consequences which put our very survival as a human civilisation at risk.

Emmanuel Macron, the newest poster child for this centrism, did not wait long to reveal the spectacular moral void at the heart of his political agenda. He was considered the palatable alternative to the Gothic horror of Marine le Pen’s overt fascism. ‘At least he’s not…’ went the apologia. Also, the romance of his ‘non-traditional’ choice of life partner was meant to persuade us that he embodied a new, more hopeful, solution-oriented politics.

He immediately appointed a right-wing prime minister, and proceeded, mere weeks after his election as the youngest president of post-1945 France, to reveal his deep conservative worldview. These acts alone ought to have alerted those who celebrated his election that things in Macronia were less utopian, and fast spinning toward the dystopian.

So when M. Macron expressed his version of the source of Africa’s problems, the views he espoused were outrageous but hardly surprising. Africa is a threat to civilisation itself, because, M. Macron proclaimed, women in Africa have ‘seven to eight children’. Hardly a surprising view for those of us who have spent any time in post-millennial Europe. And hardly a new story of Africa told in Europe.

The racist regionalism which explains the northern European view of their southern neighbours was rehearsed very well during the ‘Grexit’ crisis a few years ago. In Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet (Contesa per un maialino italianissimo a San Salvario, 2013), Amara Lakhous, an Algerian-born novelist who now lives in Turin and writes in Italian, examines this connection between regional intra-European prejudices and racism, and between such native prejudices and the xenophobia towards migrants. Castle Europe at its most debased and debasing.  And more disturbingly, but revealingly, Macron’s repellent remarks echo those of the fascist nativists in Lakhous’s gem of a novel.

That Macron’s centrism masks fascism is not surprising. What does shock was the defences mounted, some by people from Africa, in support of his views. South Africans here and abroad, from a software developer to a clothing designer, from bank employees to teachers, jumped to Macron’s aid, explaining that what he had said could not possibly be racist. ‘Backward, yes’, one transnational writer claimed, but not racist.  Those who called Macron’s views out as racist were simply too sensitive, these critics claimed; they had old chips on their left shoulders.

Reading and observing these champions of Macron felt like watching a scene from some psychiatric cabaret meant to illustrate what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’O called colonial alienation: understanding the colonised space not only in terms of the coloniser’s version of the world, but admitting to its inferiority and longing to reinvent the local in the image of the foreign. Despite the crudeness of the ideological script, it was fantastic to watch people stick to it, and perform it, like T.S. Eliot’s hollow men.

Even a cursory examination of the record would have led those poetasters of Macronian politics and its ideologically debasing worldview to question themselves, as well as the man whose utterances they were defending, or attempting to explain away.  Africa makes up 20% of the Earth's landmass, but only 16% of the planet's human population live here. On the other hand, Europe makes up 6.8% of the planet’s landmass, and 10% of the Earth's human beings currently live there. Additionally, the carbon footprint of the African continent is minuscule compared to the enormous energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions of the nations which make up Europe.

Africa is not over-populated. Population growth is an issue for some nation states in Africa, given the resources available to them. But this resource access is not just an internal issue for such states.  There are national issues of corruption and resource waste in many African states, but this is hardly an exclusively African economy in this era of multinational capital and globalisation. And the distribution of power in those organisations policing multilateral relations in the current global political economy favours the global north.  Just look at the UN Security Council, or the G20, or any of those new trade treaties being negotiated.

France's former colonies remain economically enslaved by their former colonial conquerors’ descendants, but that sort of political economic analysis may be too complex for those who wish to praise the common sense of Macron.  The French president, after all, believes his thoughts too complex for journalists to comprehend, and wants a ‘Jupiterian (sic) presidency’.  Perhaps they are satellites in his pseudo-intellectual orbit.  Africans are not the threat he projects us to be, really, and at heart, he knows this.

The biggest threats to human civilization right now are the consequences of two centuries of industrialisation which contributed to anthropogenic climate change, and nuclear annihilation. These are hardly the creations of Africans. Instead, Africans are likely to be at greater risk from the consequences of climate change on water and food security, and then also are more likely to suffer in the human conflicts which these would engender.  In some respects these challenges already partly explain some of those resource conflicts in the horn of Africa, which are worsened by regional destabilisation consequent to Occidental military interventions across the region.

There is of course a long history of Europeans suggesting the threat to ‘European civilisation’ resides in the bodies of Black women. Sander L. Gilman outlines how medicine, art, literature, and politics in nineteenth century Europe engendered the bourgeois racist misogyny which allowed the European gaze to reduce the figure of the Black woman as hyper-sexualised political threat to the source of disease, medical and social.  How far we seem not to have come, all these decades later.

We who live two centuries after Saartjie Baartman’s encounter with the French state ought to be a little more alert to the dehumanisation at the heart of Macron’s politics.  We ought to know the long history of exploitation by which Africa, its people and its wealth, built and continues to build the very largesse of the ‘European civilization’ M. Macron thinks we threaten. And in the wake of Joseph Conrad, we ought to know where the true heart of darkness lies. Not here, not with us, but back there, in the cramped heartlessness of the failing empires.

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, in Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, 1971), traces how the gutting of South America’s resources enriched Europe, and continued to do so at the time of his writing. In Year 501: The Conquest Continues (1992), Noam Chomsky traces the military conquests and genocide against the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas begun five centuries earlier by the Spanish, and how they continue unabated across the hemisphere deep into the twentieth century. 

It is time for Africans, and for South Africans in particular, to stop interpreting their present and their past exclusively in the terms set forth by their conquerors and the descendants of such, people who still benefit from that conquest. Folks who use M. Macron’s aesthetic appeal or his personal erotic choices to justify or explain away his politically regressive actions and his white supremacist, racist views, ought to check themselves, and check the record.  They are deluded, or they are lying, to us, if not also to themselves.

African women, however many children they have at the moment, or have had in the past, are not a threat to human civilisation. There are more frightening threats to the fragile way of being human on this planet than the 16% of the Earth’s population living on 20% of its landmass. M. Macron knows this, having offered sanctuary to scientists from the United States of America fearing censorship and censure in the Trumpian down-spiral of that imperial centre. The true threat to civilization lies in Macron's own backyard.

Let us not succumb to counterfactual political opportunism masked as common sense. M. Macron is wrong, and his views offensive, indeed. But we ought not to have to indulge ourselves in believing his lies this far south of the Mediterranean Sea. We know better. We have known better for a long time. We do not need to have the political lies and ideological corruption of morally and intellectually hollow men like M. Macron erase the knowledge we have gained from centuries of experience, and decades of scholarship.

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