Ketil Fred Hansen
Associate Professor, history and political science, UiS.

To political scientist Jean François Bayart, globalising and development are complementary processes.

Anyone who has had more than a passing interest in African politics, will have heard of Jean François Bayart. In 1993, when the French political scientist published the English version of his The State in Africa  (L’État en Afrique), it became an instant classic. Even though his empiricism was mainly drawn from his 1979 doctorate on the nation of Cameroon, anyone studying anything remotely related to African politics read Bayart. At the time, he was an unknown 29 year-old French political scientist. Now aged 67 he can look back on a long career as a scientist, lecturer and textbook author. He is currently still employed as a political scientist in Rabat, Paris and Geneva.

Bayart has worked in several African countries, but has in the last few years he has concerned himself mostly with the Maghreb region (North Africa west of the Nile and north of the Sahara), the Middle East and Europe rather than Africa South of the Sahara. He remains interested in the State and its role and identity under the influence of globalisation.

Illegitimate debt. In The National Liberal Impasse (L’impasse Nationale-libérale), Bayart shows that he able to analyse the African state with conviction (even though his critics call him arrogant). With ease, Bayart uses many lesser known historical events in Asia, Africa and Asia to explain the backdrop of today’s state ideologies and identities. The first part of the book devotes a significant amount of space to French warfare and intervention, ‘doomed to failure’ (perdues d’avances), as he calls actions Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and in Sahel (Mali, Niger, Chad). Bayart explains how French foreign policy for the past forty years has contributed strongly to state crises as well as rebellious Islamic and separatist movements. Already in the 1970s, France inflicted illegitimate debts on the Sahel-belt nations by lending their dictators large sums of money which the citizens of these states were left  to repay. Beginning in the 1980’s, France (and the West) forced these countries to liberalise their finances and cut public spending after they were unable to pay. This led to even fewer opportunities for the poor, worsening healthcare and cuts in wages and schools while the elite benefitted from privatisation by investing in infrastructure and public companies.

Dynamics of the Maghreb’s Geopolitics in 2014

Not for everyone. This additional marginalisation made many more poor people seek to immigrate from the Sahel-countries to France. In 1999, however, Europe established the Schengen-collaboration and closed its borders. The people of Sahel began to get the real sense that the free flow of globalisation did not apply to them. The volume of aid decreased simultaneously as fewer were able to immigrate and send money back home. The crisis was amplified due to French politics. France spearheaded the bombing of Gaddafi in February 2011 – something that, according to Bayart, makes it impossible to comprehend the logic of French foreign policy. He names high profile philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy as then-President Sarkozy’s useful idiot who legitimised the Libyan intervention, all the while pondering whether the real reason was that Sarkozy received financial support from Gaddafi during the presidential election. Such conspiracy theories, in my view, weaken the book’s importance as a polemic debate into French foreign politics.

 «French foreign politics have strongly contributed to state crises and rebellious Islamic and separatist movements.»

 Ready. That Bayart speaks of Erdogan and Macron as readily as he does of Reza Zarrab and Ali Akbar Hachemi Rasandjani makes it possible to read this book in two ways: one, is to truly study and find out who these people are, Google historic events and persons, consult world history before continue on reading Bayart’s book. The alternative is to skim through these sections and instead try to extract the main message – which the book definitely has: it’s a 230-page, personal, polemic and political essay in which Bayart wishes to change the French discourse on the State, the nation and globalising. In line with Fernand Braudel’s longue durée – to analyse history based on the fact that events, structures and ideas have different rates of change – Bayart pours out his views on today’s world based on events of centuries past.

«The rich benefit from liberalised trade borders, while the poor are denied visas and have no money to buy the cheaper, yet still too expensive, goods.»

Although an obvious member of France’s intellectual elite, Bayart’s self-confident manner is provocative. The book’s lack of footnotes coupled with bombastic statements on the errors others make when portraying the world, make this provocation almost irritating at times. Despite this, Bayart’s message is interesting – made clear through his numerous media performances, reviews and interviews in French papers and magazines in the wake of his book launch in March of this year.

Jean François Bayart

An elite state. Bayart’s supporting idea is that globalising and development of a national identity are complementary processes that strengthen each other and create synergies, and not, as many believe, processes that move in opposite directions. In his opinion, the world is a global place for the wealthy elite, whereas, for the masses, it is marked by increased nationalism:  while the rich move freely and benefit from liberalised trade borders, the poor suffer travel bans (denied visas) or lack money to benefit from the cheap goods found elsewhere in the world (which still remain too expensive).

The poor remain the losers of the globalisation synonym with illegal immigration, slave wages and unemployment. The world’s elites understand the situation and fear the consequences if the impoverished were also to partake in the globalisation feast. Hence the rich nations block them from the community, protecting their own borders and benefits more zealously than ever. This is where the national state comes in, becoming a strong protector of national identity with which the masses can identify, simultaneously negotiating better global terms for the elite citizens of this national state. This politics, according to Bayart, has steered the world into the catastrophe we are currently able to catch the outlines of.


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