Seriously, that was a joke: Macron defends Africa air-conditioning gag

AFP | France's President Emmanuel Macron at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on November 28, 2017.

In an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24, President Emmanuel Macron defended his controversial air-conditioning quip in Burkina Faso. But not everyone on Twitter is amused.


Over the past decade, French presidents have tried to press the reset button on Franco-African relations – often with disastrous consequences.

Françafrique – the term employed for France’s post-colonial attempts to maintain its sphere of influence in Africa – is so emotionally weighted on the continent, that successive presidents have been burned by their disengagement attempts.

In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy’s infamous speech in the Senegalese capital of Dakar sparked a furore when the hyperactive – and not too diplomatic – French president said, “The African man has not yet entered history.”

His successor, François Hollande, tried to end Paris’s longstanding role of playing gendarme in its African pré carré (backyard), by plugging “African solutions to African problems”.

But then a coup in Mali sparked a jihadist takeover of a huge swathe of northern Mali. It was followed by a rebel onslaught in the Central African Republic (CAR) that plunged the impoverished country into a brutal civil war.

In both cases, France was pressed to intervene.

Enter Macron, from another generation

This week, Macron had a shot at trying to close the door on Françafrique. At 39, with no history of doing business with – or having any emotional links to – Africa, Macron was well placed to bring home the message.

“I am from a generation for whom Nelson Mandela’s victory is one of the best political memories,” Macron told students at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso on Tuesday. “I am from a generation that doesn’t come to tell Africans what to do.”

So far so good. The setting was informal, the tone frank, and the atmosphere, boisterous and genial.

Macron, who enjoys verbal duelling, had joked about the four-question format his student audience was initially restricted to. Instead, he threw it open for an informal question and answer session. The audience was jocular and rowdy: some heckling, a lot of laughing and plenty of quips. Clearly, the handsome young French president was swaying a skeptical audience.

But then came the air-conditioning moment. The rest is viral history.

Fixing the air-conditioning

When one of the students asked Macron, who was scheduled to launch a solar power farm in the country, what he would do about Burkina Faso's constant power cuts, he replied, "You speak to me like I'm a colonial power,” he shot back, before continuing with a face-splitting smile, “But I don't want to look after electricity in Burkina Faso. That's the job of your president."

The audience roared with laughter as Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Kabore broke into a good-natured smile.

But then there was more.

When Kabore later got up to leave the room, Macron quipped, "You see, he's gone. He's left to fix the air-conditioning."

A smiling Kabore later returned from what his aides delicately suggested was a “pause technique”, a bathroom break.

It was a quick aside that could have ended there – if social media users hadn’t taken it up, creating an outraged furor.

Photoshopped images of Macron appearing on the cover of the infamous “Tintin in the Congo” comic book began to make the rounds on Twitter.

“It’s been an hour since the big white chief arrived to provide lessons and orders to the savage blacks. But at the same time without telling Africa what it has to do,” said one sarcastic Twitter post.

“Wow Macron on an official visit tells the president of Burkina Faso he is only fit to fix air-conditioning!! Racism writ large,” said another Twitter post.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Macron a day later, when FRANCE 24’s Roselyne Febvre grilled Macron over what some critics called “arrogant” and “almost racist”.

“Well these are the real paternalists,” shot back Macron, “because they consider that you’re not allowed to joke when talking to an African leader.”

“Would you have done the same thing with Merkel, with Angela Merkel?” prodded Febvre.

“I would have with Angela Merkel, with any head of state,” replied Macron. “I have this sort of relationship with [European Commission President] Jean-Claude Juncker… it’s a personal thing.” Referring to Kabore, Macron maintained, “We get along fine and we joke together, and you may well have noticed that he laughed… and he came back… so it’s ridiculous to lend this sort of evil intentions behind this.”

Was it funny? Or condescending? Or racist? Umbrage quotients vary in different places. While Macron’s Burkinabé audience displayed a characteristically West African, self-deprecatory sense of humour, his critics on Twitter are obviously more thin-skinned.

Already Twitter is starting to feature warnings for the future. “Macron arrives in Algeria on December 6,” noted one Twitter post. “Remember to tell him that here the official sense of humor is not the same as in Ouagadougou.”

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