France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, just learned a painful political lesson: In the age of social media, making casual references to the “civilizational” problems of Africa and the demographic challenges of African women having “seven or eight” children is going to blow up in your face.
Here's what happened. During a press conference at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, a journalist from the Ivory Coast asked Macron why there was no Marshall Plan for Africa, a reference to the massive amount of economic aid the US poured into destroyed European countries following the Second World War.
Macron responded with a three-and-a-half-minute soliloquy. He meandered on about the “civilizational” problems that Africa faces, and the differences between a postwar reconstruction project like the Marshall Plan and modern-day aid programs designed to address a variety of problems in a variety of countries.
Macron’s use of the word “civilizational” probably would have been enough to get him into hot water; it certainly sounds like a casually racist assessment that Europe’s “civilization” is different from, and perhaps better than, Africa’s.
But what came next triggered a social media firestorm that represented the first clear stumble by the new French leader. More than halfway through the answer, Macron said that one key challenge facing Africa is places where women still have “seven or eight children,” a birthrate he called continuously destabilizing.
A clip of the response, spliced to make it look like it was almost one run-on sentence, has triggered a bit of a Twitter storm.
Macron at G20 Hamburg:— Sacha Saeen (@S_Saeen) July 10, 2017
Africa's problems are civilisational, blames women with "7 or 8" children, failed states,etc.pic.twitter.com/i4tSKBcCja
The clip, as it’s being shared says, “The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilizational, today. What are the problems in Africa? Failed states, the complex democratic transitions, demographic transitions, which is one of the main challenges facing Africa.”
And then it soon fades nearly seamlessly into the words “a successful demographic transition when countries still have seven to eight children per woman — you can decide to spend billions of euros, you will not stabilize anything.”
What the hell does that mean? Much of the internet has decided it means Macron is blaming almost all African problems on high birthrates, and on women — in other words, that African women are the problem of Africa. That sounds very, very bad.
But is that what he really said?
The problem with the above clip is, well, that’s it’s a clip. It’s a spliced-together 28 seconds out of 3.5 minutes.
Macron’s full response is somewhat obnoxious and ham-handed, but it’s actually not as obnoxious and ham-handed as it originally sounded. The full video seems to make him sound much more like an International Monetary Fund or World Bank wonk: in other words, out of touch, philosophical, and a bit like a latter-day colonialist.
But in it, he is not quite the racist he is in clip one. It might seem like hair splitting, but here, then, is clip two:
The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilizational, today. What are the problems in Africa? Failed states, complex democratic transitions, demographic transition, which is one of the main challenges facing Africa, it is then the roads of multiple trafficking which also require answers in terms of security and regional coordination, trafficking drugs, arms trafficking, human trafficking, trafficking in cultural property and violent fundamentalism, Islamist terrorism, all this today mixed up, creates difficulties in Africa. At the same time, we have countries that are tremendously successful, with an extraordinary growth rate that makes people say that Africa is a land of opportunity.
Again, what does “civilizational” have to do with economic problems? Regardless of his intent, that was clearly a poor word choice, at best, by Macron. At worst it’s a racist one.
But Macron skids on past that; he waxes philosophical; he seems to like to hear himself speak. Eventually, minutes later, he wanders into the clause about women and children that certainly sounds misogynist and racist — but especially sounds that way when taken without all the other clauses attached.
In short, is he crypto-racist in that classic, persistent, French elite way? YES, no question. But overall this was a pretty minor thing.— siddhartha mitter (@siddhmi) July 10, 2017
Coming from the West’s great hope for the future, it’s a disappointing, careless response. But it's too soon to say it was anything more than a stumble.