Category Archives: Algeria

France’s Role in Africa

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 colonized. What’s more, Paris is condemned for siding with a government led by the lower caste majority.

To the extent that North American progressives criticize ‘Françafrique’ they mostly emphasize Paris’ support for the Hutu-led Rwandan government after Uganda/Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded in 1990. Echoing the Paul Kagame dictatorship’s 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 organizations that organized 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 colonized 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 criticized 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 colonized 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 colonized and where it sided with a government from the lower caste (over 85% 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 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-decades 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 plowed nearly $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, criticizing 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 everything governments, corporations and other powerful institutions tell us.

Rename the Lester B. Pearson Airport

Many monuments, memorials and names of institutions across Canada celebrate our colonial and racist past. Calls for renaming buildings or pulling down statues are symbolic ways of reinterpreting that history, acknowledging mistakes and small steps towards reconciling with the victims of this country’s policies.

At its heart this process is about searching for the truth, a guiding principle that should be shared by both journalists and historians.

In an article headlined “Everything is offensive: Here are Canada’s other politically incorrect place names” Tristin Hopper concludes that “Lester Pearson’s record still holds up pretty well” unlike a dozen other historical figures he cites who have streets, institutions and statues named in their honour. Notwithstanding the National Post reporter’s portrayal, there are compelling historical arguments for renaming the airport, school board, road, college, peace-park, civic centre, housing project, schools and foreign affairs headquarters celebrating the long-time diplomat.

As I outline in Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: the truth may hurt, the former Nobel Peace Prize winner was an aggressive militarist and imperialist. There is even a case to be made that the former external minister and prime minister could be posthumously tried for war crimes.

In the foreword to my book Noam Chomsky argues that Pearson abetted war crimes by having Canadian International Control Commission (ICC) officials deliver US bombing threats to the North Vietnamese leadership in 1964. As prime minister, Pearson also had ICC officials spy on North Vietnam for Washington, approved chemical weapon (Agent Orange, Purple and Blue) testing in Canada, ramped up weapons sales to the US and provided various other forms of support to Washington’s violence in Indochina.

A decade and a half earlier Pearson aggressively promoted Canadian participation in another conflict that left millions dead. He threatened to quit as external minister if Canada failed to deploy ground troops to Korea. Ultimately, 27,000 Canadian troops fought in the 1950–53 UN “police action” that left up to four million dead. At one point the US-led forces only stopped bombing the north of the country when they determined no building over one story was still standing.

Pearson had a hand in many other unjust policies. During the 1947 UN negotiations over the British Mandate of Palestine Pearson disregarded the interests of the indigenous Palestinian population. He also played an important role in the creation of NATO, describing its 1949 formation as the “most important thing I participated in.” In the 1950s he backed CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala as well as the violent suppression of independence struggles in Algeria, Kenya and elsewhere. As Prime Minister in the mid 1960s, Pearson brought nuclear tipped Bomarc missiles to Canada, supported the US invasion of the Dominican Republic and military coup against Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah.

Expect liberals (of both the big and small l variety) to react emotionally to any effort to remove Pearson’s name from public entities. As part of the promotion for my Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy I put together a press release titled The Top 10 Things You Don’t Know About Canadian Foreign Policy. Number 1 was “Many commentators, including the world’s leading intellectual, Noam Chomsky, consider Lester Pearson a war criminal.” I sent the list and offered a review copy to a reporter at Embassy, Canada’s leading foreign policy newsletter at the time. He responded with outrage: “Frankly, I’m not that interested in Chomsky’s opinions, especially when they smear great Canadians like Mike Pearson. I know you’re a radical, but have some pride in Canada!”

Chomsky describes a similar experience with former CBC radio host Peter Gzowski. Happy to have him criticize US foreign policy, the long-time Morningside host became furious when Chomsky said, “I landed at war criminal airport”. Gzowski questioned: “What do you mean?” to which Chomsky responded, “the Lester B. Pearson Airport”, detailing Pearson’s contribution to the US war in Vietnam. In response, writes Chomsky, Gzowski “went into a tantrum, haranguing me for a number of minutes”, which prompted an outpouring of listener complaints.

The reality is many people are emotionally tied to the self-serving myths created to justify the actions of important historical figures. But the job of historians and journalists is to seek the truth, not to simply repeat propaganda.

Language Wars

If it is a truism that after a war the victor writes the history, then it could be argued that the victor also chooses the language in which the history will be written. If it is a war of the colonised against the coloniser then the language takes on a special significance as typically the coloniser imposes their language on the colonised.

Paulo Freire described the way in which cultural conquest leads to the cultural inauthenticity of those who are invaded. They then start to take up the outlook of the invader in terms of their values, standards and goals. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire wrote that cultural invasion would only succeed if the invaded believed in their own cultural inferiority. When convinced of their own inferiority they would see the coloniser and his culture as being superior. Over time, as people become more alienated from their own culture they would see only positives in the culture of the invader and desire to become more and more like them, “to walk like them, dress like them, talk like them”.1

However, post-revolutionary, post-colonial situations are complex and reversal of cultural norms a difficult process. The African writer Chinua Achebe wrote about the problems of communication in post-colonial African countries asserting that African writers wrote in English and French because they are “by-products” of the revolutionary processes that led to new nations-states and not just taking advantage of the global French and English language book markets.2

This then leads to a difficult situation with competing groups, some using the native languages for the first time on a state level competing with the remnants of the old order who may only be able to speak the language of the former coloniser. As new nation states, post-revolution, usually have more pressing practical problems that need to be dealt with, and in a language the majority can understand, the cultural aspects tend to be put on the back boiler until some time in the future when they may even be forgotten about entirely.

Yet, the regularity with which language issues crop up around the world today is significant and points to a sharpening of political tensions. As inter-élite competition increases, language becomes a battleground upon which political power is augmented or maintained.  The Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci identified the problem very clearly when he noted that the rise in language issues meant that something more serious was bubbling below the surface. He believed that the makeup and widening of the governing class and their need to have popular support led to a change in the cultural hegemony in society.3 This usually happens when different ethnic or language groups in society become dissatisfied with the services and benefits the state bestows on them and assert a new identity based on language and ethnic history.

In most post-colonial situations language issues centre around struggle over which languages will be taught in schools, the language used in parliament and national media, and even place names and personal names. In a recent article by Aatish Taseer, he writes about the changing politics of India where place names have become sites of contention.  He notes the fact that there are many competing ideas of history and even “names reflect that very basic need of having the world see you as you see yourself.” He believes that a former self-confidence in India has given way to a new oversensitivity and a desire to control India’s image.

Taseer sees the source of this oversensitivity as the strengthening of Hindu nationalism which has undergone changes in recent years. In the past people referred to Varanasi by its multiple names including its Muslim-era name Banaras and its ancient Sanskrit name, Kashi. The rise of Hindu nationalism has politicized culture and, according to Taseer, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been built on a weaponized idea of history. Ignoring Muslim sensitivities as a minority ethnic group in India, the B.J.P. president, Amit Shah, described the Muslim period as part of a thousand-year history of slavery in Goa last year.

This monolithic view of Muslims and Muslim culture only serves to stereotype and demonise Muslims and imply that a minority group is oppressing a majority rather than the other way around. The maintenance of power by a linguistic and/or political majority by imposition of its beliefs and linguistic norms on a minority has a long history in Ireland since the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. While initially the conservative nationalist forces which won the civil war after British withdrawal (except for the northern 6 counties) brought in some measures for the protection and promulgation of the Irish language (Gaelic), the project declined and soon became associated with the radical nationalist ideology of the defeated forces instead.

The weakness of the current situation for Gaelic can be illustrated with an example of a conservative backlash which played out in Dingle in 2011, a popular small town in the southwest of Ireland. The difficulties and complexities of name change could be seen in the decision to officially rename the town ‘An Daingean’, its original Gaelic name. As place names in Ireland are in English (Anglicised versions of Gaelic names) and Gaelic, they can become focal points for cultural conflict as Gaelic speakers try to move away from historical colonial influence. The local people fought back and after six years the President at the time, Mary McAleese, reinstated the town’s name back to the Anglicised version ‘Dingle’. Many of the local people saw the Anglicised name as a tourism brand and feared a loss of business through tourist confusion with its Gaelic name.

Similar preference for the language of the colonizer can be seen in a recent article on Algeria in The Economist. In the article the competing school languages of French and Arabic were joined by Berber, made even more complicated by the lack of decision on which of its six dialects to teach. Berber is spoken by around 25% of Algerians and was only recognized last year despite independence from France in 1962. The writer notes that “Algeria’s French-speaking élite prefer their old masters’ lingo.” One adviser to the education minister, Nouria Benghebrit, stated that Arabisation was a mistake and that Algerians “shouldn’t confuse the savage, barbaric colonialism of France with the French language, which is a universal vehicle of science and culture.”

These negative overtones towards Arabic and Berber have parallels in Ireland that Gaelic speakers will recognise from Irish history. In the late nineteenth century, the increased support for Gaelic provoked reaction from various quarters particularly in the academic field. T. W. Rolleston, speaking at the Press Club in 1896 described the language as unfit for thought or consideration by educated people. Supporters of Irish and other aspects of Gaelic culture were seen as parochial traditionalists looking backward and trying to hold back the tide of history.

The struggle for the recognition of Irish as a modern language meant suffering the indignity of a challenge from Rolleston to prove that a piece of prose from a scientific journal could be translated into Irish and then back into English by another translator, without loss of meaning. This was duly carried out successfully by Hyde and MacNeill, two leading Irish nationalists, and accepted by Rolleston. (Of course, the strong historical connection between Arabic and science should also be mentioned here.)

The dubbing of Gaelic speakers as ‘parochial traditionalists’ is still used to swipe at people who assert their linguistic rights [Gaelic is the first official language of Ireland alongside English], won through many decades of political and cultural struggle with the state. The association of Gaelic with radical nationalism has always been a thorn in the side of conservative Anglophiles in Ireland.

Linguistic issues around the world are shaped, as in Ireland, by problems such as negative attitudes, the difficulties of learning new, or old, languages, and élite control of the state and the education system. As Gramsci notes, when cultural conflicts arise we can be sure that something more serious is happening entailing a closer look at local ideologies of inter-élite and class struggles. In Ireland, the fortunes of the Gaelic language rose and fell according to the cultural and ideological needs of the ruling class. The language movements were harnessed when considered a political threat and dismissed when weak.

This can be seen globally where the role of language can be positive or negative depending on the politics of the groups involved. Language is not inherently progressive or reactionary but acts as a carrier of culture as well as a means of communication. Openness towards diverse and different languages and cultures in society implies openness and tolerance towards different groups and a guard against monolithic simplification and racist provocation. When language issues arise they can also demonstrate that for minority groups, the survival of their language depends just as much on social and economic issues (emigration, unemployment, poverty) as the rights it is accorded by the state.

In Ireland, the refusal to accord linguistic rights by British colonialism to Gaelic speakers played an important part in the move of cultural nationalists to political nationalism and the subsequent War of Independence. Colonisers and conservative dominant élites both learned that their own ‘parochial traditionalism’ could be the author of their downfall in the play of history.

  1. Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Penguin, 1990) 122.
  2. Ali A. Mazrui, The Political Sociology of the English Language: An African Perspective (The Hague: Mouton, 1975) 218.
  3. Antonio Gramsci, Selections From Cultural Writings. Eds. David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, trans. William Boelhower (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1985) 183-184.