The Basketteuses de Bamako troupe was due to land in France on September 21. But the six Malian artists have still not taken up residence at the Théâtre de Rungis, where a six-week residency was to allow them to refine this “musical juggling act” with its creator, Thomas Guérineau. They would also have taken the opportunity to get used to the conditions of their French tour planned for 2024, which are different from Malian standards (lighting, stage, etc.).
This will unfortunately be a missed opportunity. Despite the team’s hopes, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris has still not reversed its August 7 decision to suspend the issuance of visas to all nationals of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, three countries where military regimes have recently seized power through coups. Thomas Guérineau therefore had to give up the stay of the basketball artists. “It took a year and a half to build this residence,” regrets the director who still wants to believe in maintaining the tour.
It is he, ultimately, who will go to rehearse in Mali. Although the country has also stopped issuing visas to French people, Thomas Guérineau has a six-month document obtained for a previous stay, which is still valid. But he had to give up on the funding found to pay the artists. “They were conditioned to their presence in France. My company is going to have to go into debt. »
Like Les Basketteuses de Bamako, many other artistic projects are subject to the decision of the Quai d’Orsay. “I am working on reprogramming because I have abandoned the idea that certain artists could come,” says Sébastien Lagrave, director of the Africolor music festival, which will begin in November in Seine-Saint-Denis.
Visas almost impossible to obtain
He did not discover yesterday the vagaries of visa files for African artists. Even in the absence of political tensions, at their height today with the Sahel, they encounter more difficulties than the others in obtaining a sesame for France. In 2022, they represented 68% of the 70 cases submitted to Zone Franche, a network of world music professionals which offers visa assistance to its members. In 2018, the proportion stood at 77%.
“These artists are often seen as potential migrants. Thus, visa refusals are based on the fact that it is not guaranteed that the artist will return to his country. And non-obligatory documents, such as bank account statements, may be requested,” analyzes Sébastien Laussel, director of Zone Franche.
In this context, the decision of August 7 has the effect of an additional penalty. If it does not only concern the artists, the latter see it as an unfair punishment in view of the fate reserved for their colleagues coming, like them, from countries not very friendly to Paris. “Artists coming from Russia are seen as dissidents who must be welcomed,” notes Sébastien Lagrave of Africolor.
Contradiction with the Ouagadougou speech
The official argument of “security reasons” is not convincing. France welcomed Afghan artists after the recapture of Kabul by the Taliban in 2021, several sources recall. A doubt that was reinforced, on September 11, by a directive requesting the cessation sine die and without exception of “all cooperation projects (…) with institutions or nationals” of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The text aroused such indignation that the President of the Republic calmed things down by recalling that “the vocation of France is to welcome artists, intellectuals, and to be able to make them shine in complete freedom” .
However, the issuance of visas has not resumed, undermining the principle of cultural diplomacy, whose “function is to maintain a thread when other relationships are reduced to nothing”, recalls Philippe Lane, professor emeritus of universities and former cultural advisor at the French embassy in Jordan. The blockage also contradicts the vision set out by Emmanuel Macron in Ouagadougou in 2017: “Culture is also what should make it possible to change the way we see each other. »
Ambivalences of the Elysée’s African policy
How can we explain the gap with the line drawn six years ago? “Emmanuel Macron’s African policy has several faces,” explains Cameroonian philosopher and historian Achille Mbembe, who submitted a report to the Head of State in 2021 on Africa-France relations. A reformist face, which gave rise to initiatives such as the restitution of art objects, work on memory, cultural and creative industries, the House of African Worlds… And a reactionary face, that of security psychosis, which gives disproportionate weight to the military in decisions concerning Africa. »
Since 2021 and the multiplication of putsches in the Sahel, which is accompanied by the progression of anti-French sentiment, the second face has prevailed. “We have moved to another logic,” notes Sébastien Lagrave, of Africolor. It is as if we no longer distinguish civil societies from governments, as if they formed a bloc and that there must therefore be a wholesale break. »
An amalgam verified by Patrick Giraudo, former deputy director of the French Institute of Bamako. “After the coup d’état of May 2021,” he remembers, “the embassy asked me to report artists making negative comments about France on social networks. Of course I didn’t. There is no democracy without freedom to criticize. »
Under these conditions, can France renew its relationship with the Sahel without a total break in relations, including cultural ones? Yes, according to Achille Mbembe: “We will only emerge from the current contradictions by opting for a policy of the right distance, made of equality and mutual respect, as in the relationship with South Africa and other English-speaking states . »
For now, if no solution is in sight, the Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak, wants to reassure. “Those who already have a visa will be able to come as planned, those who are waiting to have a visa, we will look at the dates of the shows, (…) where we will be in the situation, things are evolving day by day”, a- she declared in a video published by Konbini on September 25. According to our sources, his office contacted programmers to try to obtain visas for certain artists.
Beyond this case-by-case treatment, Sébastien Laussel, the director of Zone Franche, calls for “a working group with cultural actors, the ministries of culture, foreign affairs and the interior”. An emergency, according to Gilles Holder, anthropologist at the CNRS and director of the Macoter International Joint Research Laboratory, in Bamako. “We have never been so cut off from these countries,” he recalls. This is not a diplomatic rupture, it is a diplomatic drama. »
Emmanuel Macron’s cultural policy in Africa
November 2017. In Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Emmanuel Macron pledges that “within five years the conditions will be met for temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage in Africa”.
December 2020 to July 2021. Season of African cultures in France, known as “Africa 2020”, intended to change views on the continent.
October 2021.“New Africa-France summit”, in Montpellier, where the Head of State announces the creation in France of a “House of African Worlds and Diasporas”. That same year, France returned to Benin 26 works from the royal treasures, previously kept at the Quai-Branly Museum.
January 2023. The Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak, announces a draft framework law to facilitate the restitution of works looted during colonization. It should be presented to Parliament in early 2024.