DSK: The View from Celesteville

Warning: the following post (like many of my other posts) contains baseless speculation and irresponsible, and potentially offensive, cultural generalizations.

How could an international development blog go without remarking on the deliciously symbolic arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the soon-to-be-former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund for attempted rape?  Some pundits worry about the IMF’s leadership crisis just as Portugal needs to be pulled back from the brink of fiscal disaster.  Others brew over the sticky question of succession and whether the next IMF head should hail from emerging markets – thus breaking the post-WWII “gentlemen’s agreement” (read: “Western Masters of the Universe understanding”) that the head of the World Bank be appointed by – and normally be from – the United States, while the head of the IMF be appointed by European governments.  Still others (mostly French) ponder the significance of the trial for French politicos’ revered status – “omertà” as it’s sometimes called by the French (appropriately borrowing the Sicilian term), “callous impunity” as it’s referred to elsewhere.  Finally, others have taken the opportunity to make obvious jokes about how the IMF has tried to screw billions of poor people as international policy, and so why should we be shocked when its head tries to screw one more on his time off?

Then, of course, there are the cultural overtones.  DSK is French, and allegedly attempted the rape of a maid from Guinea, part of the former French West Africa, the legitimacy of whose nascent independent nations France sought to undermine through the adoption of the loi cadre of 1956, granting autonomy to local, rather than national governments.  At a GNI of US$418 per capita, Guinea today is poor even by Sub-Saharan African standards.  It has been ruled since its angst-y independence movement by a series of autocrats starting with Ahmed Sékou Touré, and has lately been thrust into a series of violent political upheavals triggered by the death of former president-for-life Lansana Conté in 2008 – but which some argue may be the continuing fallout of the 2004 imposition of the IMF’s own fiscal austerity reform measures.

Given the different views of the DSK Affair from opposite sides of the Atlantic, the obvious question is: what does Babar have to say about all of this?  Being the father of a 2-year-old whom I am trying to equip with a proficiency in the French language, I read French and American children’s books every night.  And the two characters that stand out most for their symbolic insight into French and American views of colonialism are Babar and Curious George.  Of course, I’m hardly the first person to write about these two, but it’s generally done to impress upon the reader how embedded in our psyche Western colonial attitudes of Africa are in a general sense – not to make a juxtaposition among Western attitudes.

L’Histoire de Babar is, to put it bluntly, a story of France’s mission civilisatrice.  Babar must flee a lawless Africa where his mother was viciously killed (ironically by a presumably European hunter), and somehow runs to a French city.  There, he becomes instantly enamored of French architecture, dress and pastries.  He goes on a shopping spree funded by a French benefactor, and becomes educated by a French professor.  He entertains the French with stories of wild Africa.  When his cousins arrive, he takes them first and foremost to the tailor, and second to a pastry shop.

Babar then decides to return to “the great forest” where he is universally recognized as being the appropriate choice for the king of the elephants due to his European cultivation.  (Kingship is not a divinely hereditary honor in Babar; rather kings are  nominated and approved by mob consent – not unlike many African heads of state to this day.)  The extravagant coronation ceremony, involving costumes imported from France, recalls to mind the 2-day “imperial coronation” of Jean-Bédel Bokassa as Central Africa’s self-declared emperor – an event for which the French Defense Ministry lent a battalion, French artist Jean-Pierre Dupont oversaw the planning, and French jeweler Claude Bertrand made the crown.  All for a cost of over a third of the country’s annual budget.

Once crowned king in Africa, Babar goes about the business of mimicking French society, putting everyone to work on a capital city – “Celesteville,” named for his wife – by assigning them each a métier.  There are cobblers, masons, architects, and, this being a French-inspired society, pastry chefs, painters, and sculptors – vaguely reminiscent of the replication of French royal society that was attempted in Haiti by the “Roi” Henri Christophe with his Dukes of Marmalade, Fond-du-Trou, etc, or like the hunting trips organized by Bokassa for French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.  Not only are the ideas of urbanity and societal structure imported from France – everything from the tools to the uniforms is, too, and socialite elephants mix and mingle in top hats, morning coats and (strangely) French renaissance courtesan dresses on the grounds of a the garden that looks strikingly like Versailles.  Babar Le Roi ends with Babar’s dream: Elephants representing health, learning, patience, and work drive away the demons of laziness, ignorance, sickness, stupidity and fear.  Condorcet would have been proud.

Contrast that story with Curious George – written in 1941, just ten years after the first Babar book appeared.  George – a monkey, mind you – is living a happy, peaceful life in Africa; he has no reason to flee.  However, he is easily tricked and trapped by the unsettlingly anonymous “Man in a Yellow Hat,” who forcibly brings him back to a zoo in the States.  However, George isn’t “curious” so much as downright stupid and incorrigible.  His intractable idiocy means both that he is easily pleased and that he can’t help but get into trouble when put in the context of a complex modern society.  He nearly drowns himself on the boat (smiling blithely the whole time) and accidentally causes a false fire alarm.  For his own good, it seems, he must ultimately wind up in the zoo.  Other books seem to imply that the Man in the Yellow Hat completely loses interest in George until opportunities to exploit him present themselves (a television casting call; a need to send him into space, presumably as an experimental test subject).

To sum up then – not to mention make the sorts of broad generalizations that literature folks love to indulge in – the French view of Africans is that of patronizing reform for the purposes of civilization replication, while that of white Americans seems to be out-and-out exploitation.  At first blush, if I had to take my pick I would take the former.  However, that’s not where the generalizations end, because there’s a dark side to the French vision.

The Jacobin virtues of equality promulgated throughout the French empire in the late 18th century did not mean that members of the Empire were welcomed as equals within France.  In fact, it was savages’ very potential for accurately aping French civilization that implied that they shouldn’t need or want to leave their places of origins: ultimately Babar is not happy in France – he just doesn’t belong and misses his friends and family.  By contrast, the cosmopolitan, French “Old Lady” is perfectly happy to come live and teach in Africa.  The French, in this view, have tried – nay, toiled! – to cultivate the capacities for civilization in Africans.  If their disciples fail to make it work successfully, as Babar was able, then the fault lies with them.  French prejudice against immigrants and a generalized failure to integrate them into “metropolitan” society and economy stems perhaps partly from this sense of a one-way equality.

Is DSK simply a misogynistic pig with a long history of sexual misconduct coming from a society that both reveres powerful men and grants them a degree of protection from the press not afforded in many other countries?  Certainly.  But the identity of the victim – if she was, indeed a victim – may not be a simple coincidence, either.  She was far from home, poor, unimportant and vulnerable, yes.   But she was also from a former French colony widely viewed as a prodigal son and a disappointing failure of the French development model.  Her aggressor was the highest-ranking French member of the international development community.

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Filed under International Development Policy, Politics/ Political Economy

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