Emmanuel Macron has been criticised for claiming “civilisational” problems and women having "seven or eight children" are hampering development in African nations.
While speaking at the G20 summit, the French President was asked about the possibility of implementing a policy in the continent like America’s Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe after the Second World War.
“The problems Africa face today are completely different … and are ‘civilisational’,” Mr Macron told a reporter from former French colony Ivory Coast. “What are the problems? Failed states, complex democratic transitions and extremely difficult demographic transitions.”
In a lengthy reply, Mr Macron also listed issues including Islamist terrorism, drugs and weapons trafficking but said there were examples showing the “continent is a land of opportunity”.
He said that although France, a former colonial power that controlled dozens of territories across Africa, accepted responsibility to help with infrastructure, education and heath, a “simple money transfer” was not the answer.
“It’s by a more rigorous governance, a fight against corruption, a fight for good governance, a successful demographic transition when countries today have seven or eight children per woman,” Mr Macron added.
“At the moment, spending billions of euros outright would stablise nothing. So the transformation plan that we have to conduct together must be developed according to African interests by and with African leaders.”
The excerpt of his speech on Saturday went largely unnoticed during the wide-ranging G20 summit, which saw violent protests erupt in Hamburg. But an edited clip of his response being shared on social media has since provoked outrage, with critics accusing the French President of blaming women for poverty and buying into racial stereotypes.
France’s Libération newspaper pointed to research by a prominent political scientist concluding that blaming overpopulation for poverty, and African women for overpopulation, distracted from the role of former colonial powers like France and the UK.
Françoise Vergès’ book also highlighted abuses by white French doctors who sterilised black women and induced abortions without their consent in the colony of Reunion in the 1970s. “Third World women are made responsible for underdevelopment [but] most studies show today that it is underdevelopment that causes overpopulation,” she said. “The theory of overpopulation also avoids questioning the role of colonialism and imperialism in poverty.”
Observers also criticised Mr Macron for referring only to “Africa”, rather than specific nations, ignoring huge differences across the world’s second largest continent. Writing for South Africa’s Daily Vox website, Mishka Wazar said: “Africa is not a country. You cannot, as a world leader (or even an ordinary person on the streets with no political ambitions) conflate African countries with ‘Africa’.”
She argued that the French President’s casual use of the term at a world summit like the G20 was damaging and fed into “Western saviour mentality”. “Macron is right in saying that the issues Africa is facing are totally different – but this has nothing to do with civilisation,” she added, naming factors including colonial borders, the use of resources and Western interference.
Siddhartha Mitter, writing for Quartz Africa, noted that Mr Macron’s claim that women have “seven to eight children” on average is an extreme observed only in Niger, where the figure is disputed.
“Macron’s remarks fall into a tradition of grandiloquent and condescending statements about Africa that point to every cause of the continent’s difficulties other than colonialism and its enduring trace,” he wrote. “There is a long history of population panic and its use in racist ideology.”
Mr Macron called colonisation a “crime against humanity” during a campaign visit to Algeria in February, but has been quiet on France’s troubled legacy since his election victory.
He visited Mali, where thousands of French troops are bolstering local forces against an Islamist and separatist insurgency, during his first foreign tour in May and has restated France’s commitment to military intervention in the Sahel region.