Can France become an ally in promoting contemporary African culture?

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Lagos, Nigeria on Tuesday evening to Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti’s Afrika Shrine, to celebrate Nigerian and African culture. “I’m very happy to be here with you tonight,” said Macron, addressing the cheering and whistling crowd in English.

Macron had earlier met with President Muhammadu Buhari at Nigeria’s capital Abuja, on the second day of his visit to West Africa after Mauritania on Monday. His visit included the signing of an agreement for a potential loan to finance urban development projects, and is also a part of the 2020 African Culture’s Season in France which is aimed at changing the French society’s perception of the African continent through the promotion of African contemporary creations.

The African narrative has been at the forefront of discussions in both traditional and social media and it is great to see the French president attempt a different handle on the way things have been done. Alliance Française, a French language and cultural centre has ten associations throughout Nigeria located in Enugu, Ibadan, Ilorin, Jos, Kano, Kaduna, Lagos, Maiduguri, Owerri and Port Harcourt. The French president also commissioned a new centre of the Alliance Française in Ikoyi, Lagos, which will serve as the organisation’s headquarters in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, right, and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, walk on the red carpet after a joint press conference held at the Presidential State House, in Abuja, Nigeria. Photo: Ludovic Marin/Pool/AP

The non-profit generating association is known for teaching the French language worldwide, with classes for all types of audiences, while making French culture and the culture of French speaking countries better known. All of this sounds great on paper, but the reality, however, is that France and other nations like it which once colonised African nations still hold considerable power in the way African stories are portrayed, while the context of their colonial past have largely been ignored or are still in the works.

On his November trip to Burkina Faso, Macron appealed to young Africans not to reject French in favour of English, “To refuse the French language in order to make English fashionable on the African continent is to be blind to the future,” Macron said. “If we go about it right, France will be the first language in Africa—and maybe even the world—in the coming decades.”

The French language, Macron continued, “is no longer solely French but also, maybe even more so, African”. Macron’s effort, however, was met with resistance, with some saying the move carries unpleasant echoes of colonialism.

This is quite understandable as the focus has largely remained on the narrative of that of the Western influence on Africa, and how it benefits them while little opportunities exist to really explore and enhance the creativity and narratives of Africans living both in Anglophone and Francophone Africa. The reality is that most of these colonial powers retained their authority and still continue to do so in matters concerning the African continent. While describing the concert hall as “iconic”, though, Macron said that “we have to build a new common narrative” in Africa. “You have to recognise the bad and negative pages of this history, but you have to move forward,” he said according to Thisday.

“Africa is a young continent and I believe it is possible to change. All we need is to let African people speak about Africa,” the French president continued. It has taken a generational change to finally face issues like that of returning looted artifacts to former European colonies. French president Emmanuel Macron, spoke to university students in Burkina Faso last year where he presented himself as a politician “from a generation which, like you, has never known Africa as a colonized continent.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, center, learns how to dance Nigeria music dance steps during an event to celebrate African Culture at the New Afrika shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, Tuesday, July 3, 2018. Photo: Sunday Alamba, AP

Macron had made returning African art to the continent a “top priority”, giving his administration five years to accomplish. Hopefully, the realisation of Africans asserting themselves untainted by the Western eye doesn’t take as long as the debate surrounding stolen artifacts.

It is believed that Macron is the first President to enter the Afrika Shrine which is synonymous with marijuana smoke, energetic backup dancers and protest music. But the 40-year-old former investment banker, worked as an intern at the French embassy in the city in the early 2000s, and is no stranger to the culture which most likely influenced his ways of thinking during all that time.

Since coming to power he has made a point of boosting ties with France’s former colonies even as leaders like Benin’s president, Patrice Talon also engage in promoting African culture and identity by building new museums, while also improving trade with anglophone countries.

African culture has been a bit of a buzz lately, but with the history of the continent being exploited, this also comes with yet another “African thing” to be taken advantage of. Hopefully, the quest doesn’t just end at making Lagos state the culture and entertainment capital of Africa as its governor Akinwunmi Ambode said, or at building one sided relationships, but also goes on to give the French opportunities to interact with African musicians, artists, fashion designers and filmmakers as authorities in their own right, just as the French leader once did.