What if you were to take an opinion poll in Bamako (a purely hypothetical case — such things almost never happen) and ask, “Which world leader do you hate most?” I’m quite certain Nicolas Sarkozy would top the list. This is a town where it’s possible to hear people express favorable opinions about everyone from Saddam Hussein to Muammar Gaddafi to Robert Mugabe and even, occasionally, George W. Bush. But I literally have never met a Bamakois with a kind word to say about Sarkozy.
Even before becoming France’s president in 2007, Sarkozy was a despised figure here. As interior minister under Jacques Chirac, he took a hard anti-immigration line, increasing the number of deportations of undocumented migrants and pressuring the Malian government to stem the flow of its citizens to France. No sooner was he elected president than he gave a now-infamous speech in Dakar stating, among other things, that colonialism wasn’t all bad and suggesting that Africans’ marginalization in the present world order has been largely their own fault. The African, Sarkozy claimed, “never launched himself towards the future. The idea never came to him to get out of this repetition and to invent his own destiny.”
His rating among Malians only fell from there, and seemed to plunge ever deeper as Mali’s own fortunes fell. A good many people here see the sinister hand of Sarkozy behind the resurgence of the Tuareg-led rebellion earlier this year. It’s certainly true that the Tuareg have a sympathetic following among the French and that rebel spokesmen have frequently appeared in the French media. It’s also true that, through his support for NATO’s campaign to oust Gaddafi last year, Sarkozy helped bring about certain side effects such as the return of heavily armed Tuareg fighters to Mali. And there may well be French interest in certain natural resources that might someday be exploited in northern Mali.
The notion that Sarkozy has been actively destabilizing Mali became so widespread here that France’s ambassador here had to write an open letter denying allegations of a French conspiracy against the country. In some of the more nuanced versions of this conspiracy theory, such as the one articulated by altermondialiste Aminata Dramane Traoré, Sarkozy is just a prominent cog in a global imperialist machine seeking to oppress the African continent. In other versions, he has singlehandedly spearheaded a campaign to bring Mali to its knees. One thing most Malians agree on is that Sarkozy has been “the worst president in the history of modern France.”
This evening it was announced that President Sarkozy narrowly lost his reelection bid to Socialist candidate François Hollande. People in Bamako now wonder, with a new resident soon to occupy the Elysée (France’s presidential palace), what will change for relations between Mali and France? Will “Françafrique,” the web of “incestuous relations” between top politicians of France and former French colonies in Africa that has existed since the 1960s, finally be dismantled?
Hollande has promised to do dismantle it, but then again, so have many of his predecessors. As Malian editorialist Adam Thiam recently wrote, “men change in the Elysée but France’s policy in Africa endures.”