Fake news, propaganda, public relations, advertising — it goes by many names, but at the core of all these terms, is the idea that powerful institutions, primarily governments and corporations, strive to manipulate our understanding of world affairs. The most effective such shaping of opinion is invisible and therefore unquestioned.
Left criticism of French imperialism in Africa provides a stark example. Incredibly, the primary contemporary criticism North American leftists make of French imperialism on that continent concerns a country it never colonised. What is more, Paris is condemned for siding with a government led by the lower caste majority.
To the extent that North American progressives criticise “Françafrique” they mostly emphasise Paris’ support for the Hutu-led Rwandan government after Uganda/Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded in 1990. Echoing the Paul Kagame dictatorship is simplistic narrative; France is accused of backing Rwandan genocidaires. In a recent article for thevolcano.org, a leftist outlet based on unceded Coast Salish Territories, Lama Mugabo claims, “the organisations that organised this anger into genocide, and the instruments of murder that they wielded, were outfitted by French colonial power.” In Dark Threats and White Nights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism Sherene H. Razack writes that “French peacekeepers made a number of decisions that prolonged and exacerbated the conflict.” The “post-colonial” Canadian academic also decries “French support for him [Hutu President “Hanyarimana” — her (repeated) misspelling] scuttled any fledging peace efforts.”
In taking up Kigali/Washington/London’s effort to blame France for the mass killings in Rwanda (rather than the Uganda/RPF aggressors and their Anglo-American backers), Razack and others even imply that Paris colonised the country. But, Germany conquered Rwanda and Belgium was given control of the small East African nation at the end of World War I. The nearest former French colony — Central African Republic — is over 1,000 km away.
What Razack, Mugabo and other leftists ignore, or don’t know, is that Washington and London backed the 1990 Uganda/RPF invasion. Officially, a large number of Rwandan exiles “deserted” the Ugandan military to invade (including a former deputy defence minister and head of military intelligence). In reality, the invasion was an act of aggression by the much larger neighbour. Over the next three and a half years Kampala supplied the RPF with weaponry and a safe haven.
Throughout this period Washington provided the Ugandan government with financial, diplomatic and arms support (Ottawa cut millions in aid to Rwanda, prodded Habyarimana to negotiate with the RPF and criticised his human rights record while largely ignoring the Uganda/RPF aggression). Washington viewed the pro-neoliberal government in Kampala and the RPF as a way, after the Cold War, to weaken Paris’ position in a Belgium colonised region, which includes trillions of dollars in mineral riches in eastern Congo.
Echoing Kigali/Washington/London/Ottawa, many leftists have taken up criticism of Paris’ policy towards a country France never colonised and where it sided with a government from the lower caste (over 85 percent of the population, Hutus were historically a subservient peasant class and the Tutsi a cattle owning, feudal ruling class). Concurrently, leftists have largely ignored or failed to unearth more clear-cut French crimes on the continent, which Washington and Ottawa either backed or looked the other way.
In 1947–48 the French brutally suppressed anticolonial protests in Madagascar. Tens of thousands were also killed in Cameroon during the 1950s-60s independence war. Paris’ bid to maintain control over Algeria stands out as one of the most brutal episodes of the colonial era. With over one million settlers in the country, French forces killed hundreds of thousands of Algerians.
To pre-empt nascent nationalist sentiment, Paris offered each of its West African colonies a referendum on staying part of a new “French community”. When Guinea voted for independence in 1958, France withdrew abruptly, broke political and economic ties, and destroyed vital infrastructure. “What could not be burned,” noted Robert Legvold, “was dumped into the ocean.”
France hasn’t relinquished its monetary imperialism. Through its “Pacte Coloniale” independence agreement, Paris maintained control of 14 former colonies’ monetary and exchange rate policy. Imposed by Paris, the CFA (Communauté financière en Afrique) franc is an important barrier to transforming the former colonies’ primary commodity based economies. As part of the accord, most CFA franc countries’ foreign exchange reserves have been deposited in the French treasury (now European Central Bank), which has generated large sums for Paris.
Alongside its monetary imperialism, France has ousted or killed a number of independent-minded African leaders. After creating a national currency and refusing to compensate Paris for infrastructure built during the colonial period, the first president of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, was overthrown and killed by former French Foreign Legion troops. Foreign legionaries also ousted leaders in the Central African Republic, Benin, Mali, etc. Paris aided in the 1987 assassination of famed socialist Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara.
While undermining independence-minded leaders, Paris has backed corrupt, pro-corporate, dictatorships such as four-decade long Togolese and Gabonese rulers Gnassingbé Eyadema and Ali Bongo Ondimba (their sons took over). France retains military bases or troops in Djibouti, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gabon, Mali, Chad and Niger. French troops are also currently fighting in Mali and Niger.
Compared to Paris’ role in Rwanda, French influence/violence in its former colonies gets short shrift from North American leftists. Part of the reason is that Washington and Ottawa largely supported French policy in its former colonies (Ottawa has ploughed nearly US $1 billion into Mali since the 2013 French invasion and gave Paris bullets and other arms as 400,000 French troops suppressed the Algerian independence struggle). Additionally, criticising France’s role in Rwanda dovetails with the interests of Kigali, Washington, London and Ottawa.
The North American left’s discussion of France’s role in Africa demonstrates the influence of powerful institutions, especially the ones closest to us, in shaping our understanding of the world. We largely ignore what they want us to ignore and see what they want us to see.
To build a movement for justice and equality for everyone on this planet, we must start by questioning what governments, corporations and other powerful institutions tell us.
*Yves Engler’s the author of Canada in Africa: 300 years of aid and exploitation.