DAKAR: French President Francois Hollande praised Senegal’s contribution to French history as he began his first trip to Africa here Friday.
Hollande’s diplomatic remarks were a dramatic contrast to those of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who five years ago came to Senegal and said the African man had “not yet entered history,” in a speech that was viewed as deeply insulting to many on the continent.
The 58-year-old Hollande, who defeated Sarkozy in the presidential election in May, vowed on the eve of his departure “to write a new page in France’s relations with Africa.”
Hollande addressed the Senegalese in the garden of the neoclassical presidential palace. Unlike Sarkozy, who chided Africans for their lack of development, Hollande provided examples of Senegal’s contributions to French history, including the fact that Leopold Sedar Senghor, Senegal’s first post-independence president, was a member of the committee that helped write the text of the French constitution.
“Between France and Senegal, there’s a history. There’s a language that we both speak. There’s a culture that we share and that both of our people contributed to. But beyond our history, beyond our language, beyond the links that have united us for so long, what unites us today, is the future,” said Hollande. “I want to express my confidence not only in the future of Senegal but also in the future of Africa.”
Analysts say he chose Senegal for his first visit to the continent due to the country’s democratic credentials, and also because Senegal is expected to play a central role in the planned military intervention in neighboring Mali to flush out the Islamic extremists controlling north Mali.
For the Senegalese though, what is front and center is the memory of Sarkozy’s 2007 speech, in which he said: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African man has not fully entered into history ... They have never really launched themselves into the future,” Sarkozy said. “The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures.”
People attending his speech at Dakar’s largest public university were so insulted that some walked out.
Senegal was once the seat of the French empire in West Africa. The country won its independence from France 52 years ago, but maintains close ties with France and there is still a French army base in the Senegalese capital. And France is Senegal’s main economic partner, said Senegalese President Macky Sall.
For France, Senegal is also important for the upcoming military intervention in northern Mali, an area that is now under the de facto control of three Islamic rebel groups, all of which have ties to Al-Qaeda.
Hollande has been one of the most vocal proponents of a military operation in northern Mali, and he reiterated his position in Dakar: “What is happening in the Sahel for the past several months, in Mali, is that terrorists have structured themselves, have installed themselves. It’s not simply a menace for West Africa.
“It’s not just an aggression against the sovereign country of Mali. It’s a major issue for the security of the entire continent – and Europe,” he said, explaining why he has pushed for a U.N. resolution which will legalize a military intervention led by the nations neighboring Mali and supported by France and the United States.
Hollande was in Dakar throughout the day Friday, where he was meeting President Macky Sall, as well as delivering a speech at the National Assembly. In a departure from his predecessor, he was also scheduled to visit Goree Island, off the coast of the capital, where slaves were boarded on to ships and sent to America. The visit to the slave museum is a symbolic gesture, underscoring Hollande’s understanding of the difficult history that Africans have endured.