France as a Model for Human Rights and Freedom of Expression? You Must Be Kidding

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Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba and French President Francois Hollande before the 'Marche Republicaine,' January 11, 2015.Credit: AFP

Last week’s events in Paris were sad, painful and shocking. Still, something about the rhetoric that France’s leaders chose to use even as the events broke caused me a feeling of discomfort that developed over the weekend into full-scale nausea.

Even if we assume that the calls for “liberté, egalité, fraternité” with which France burst into the modern age were taken seriously by the bourgeois instigators of the French Revolution, there is no doubt that they have not caused the French people any sleepless nights since the noise of the guillotines drowned them at the close of the 18th century.

Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the history of the countries outside France will have a hard time understanding how complacent, Machiavellian, oppressive France dares portray itself as almost the last bastion of human rights and freedom of expression. There is not enough space here to detail France’s abuses in all its former colonies. Anyone who is interested may do a bit of research on Google: Mali, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Gabon, to name just a few.

The story repeats itself, so routine that it is almost boring. It is called “Françafrique”: a predatory relationship between the lysée Palace and countries that possess unparalleled wealth in the form of natural resources – resources that transformed France into a thriving modern country while leaving millions of Africans to suffer unimaginable poverty and horrible disease, and abandoning millions of others to the hands of rapists, torturers, mutilators and murderers who often worked for the puppet regimes established by the “former” colonial masters. This is terrorism in every sense, terrorism in day to day life that almost never makes it to the pages of newspapers or television screens, terrorism that has a country – and that country is France.

Let us take, for example, Gabon, an African country on the oil-rich coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Gabon won its nominal independence in 1960, during the same years in which France lost its hold on Algeria, which had been its main source of crude oil until then. France, whose economic engines had to keep on running with or without Algeria, quickly made sure that its darling son Léon M’ba would win Gabon’s first election, which was neither free nor democratic.

Libreville, the capital and largest city of Gabon. Horrific poverty.Credit: Reuters

As soon as M’ba won, he followed the advice of his French advisers and closed newspapers, arrested opposition leaders and outlawed all political parties except, of course, his own. At the same time, he made a comfortable deal with the lysée Palace to skim “modest” sums into his own pocket as a token of gratitude for the help he gave his French employers in the continued “development” of his country’s natural resources.

His successor, Omar Bongo Ondimba, went even further, forming deep friendships with each president of France from de Gaulle to Chirac, thanks to whom he became one of the wealthiest people on earth as the crude oil flows unhindered to France and the inhabitants of Gabon continue to stifle in poverty and die of malnutrition and disease. When the people dared to go out into the streets to protest, they were pushed back into their miserable homes by the troops of the French army stationed at the de Gaulle military base on the outskirts of the capital.

Today, Omar Bongo Ondimba’s son Ali Bongo Ondimba and his gang (like their friends in many of the French-speaking African countries) continue to oppress their own people as their relationships with France, the United States and the world’s other enlightened countries grow even stronger.

Despite having the third-largest per-capita GNP in sub-Saharan Africa, Gabon’s million and a half citizens, who are scattered over territory roughly the size of Britain, live in horrific poverty and occupy 112th place on the Human Development Index. France, which is only roughly twice that size, has a population 45 times as large and far fewer natural resources, is in 20th place. Like most of the top 20 countries in the index, France does not like to talk about how it got there. They dislike talking about it so much that they simply forget.

The countries of the West, who just two decades ago enthusiastically adopted Francis Fukuyama’s theory about “The End of History and the Last Man” and were convinced that the world’s oppressed were about to put on the tricolor cockade on their way to the voting booths, are shocked once again at the wave of Islamic terrorism. How can those primitives not understand how simple and good it is to live in liberty, equality and fraternity and how much nicer democracy, MTV and a belly-button stud are than the Quran and a burka?

If this really is a culture war, it is not being waged between murderous Islam and liberal democracy, but between murderous Islam and greedy capitalism, which is every bit as murderous, and hypocritical, with a resume that is much longer and more blood-soaked than those of Al-Qaida and Islamic State.

Anyone offended by the cartoons is an idiot, and anyone who commits murder over them is a vile specimen who belongs in hell. But the next time I have to listen to François Hollande rushing to the defense of democracy and free expression, I will make sure to have some airsick bags on hand first.

The writer, an Israeli physician who works in a public hospital in Botswana, is an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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