French President Emmanuel Macron called the trafficking of African migrants a “crime against humanity” on Tuesday as he made his first major address on the continent before a crowd of university students in Burkina Faso.
In a wide-ranging speech that lasted nearly two hours, Macron proposed a crackdown on human smuggling networks between Africa and Europe.
The 39-year-old French leader also emphasized his youth, referring to himself as the child of “a generation that has never known Africa as a colonized continent.” He engaged in a lively series of questions with students afterward.
Migrants from throughout West Africa journey to Libya in hopes of making the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean to Europe. Video footage broadcast on CNN this month showed the auction and sale of migrant men as slaves in the North African nation, prompting widespread outrage.
Macron said he wants “Africa and Europe to help populations trapped in Libya by providing massive support to the evacuation of endangered people.” He did not elaborate, saying he will formally detail his proposal at a summit of the European Union and the African Union in Ivory Coast on Wednesday.
Already Burkina Faso’s foreign affairs minister has recalled his ambassador from Libya, calling it “unacceptable to have slaves in this 21st century.”
Macron heads next to Ivory Coast for a summit of European and African leaders, where concerns about migrants are expected to feature prominently. Also high on the agenda is regional security, including the growing threat of Islamic extremism.
Macron is urging international support for a new military force that includes Burkina Faso and four other regional countries and is meant to counter a growing jihadist threat. Burkina Faso has seen two recent attacks on restaurants popular with foreigners, including one in August that killed 18 people.
The threat was underscored late Monday by an attempted assault on a bus carrying French troops hours before Macron’s arrival. The assailants missed their target but several people nearby were wounded, police said.
Also Tuesday, the French presidency’s spokesman said stones were thrown at a vehicle transporting members of the French delegation, despite heavy security.
In his first major Africa address at the University of Ouagadougou, Macron sought to refocus the France-Africa dynamic away from a colonial past. However, he stressed the “undeniable crimes of European colonization.”
Macron also said he wants conditions to be met in five years so that pieces of African cultural heritage can return to African museums “temporarily or definitively,” saying that “I cannot accept that a large part of African heritage is in France.”
The French leader also referred to his comments that prompted controversy in July, when he suggested that it’s a problem when African women have “seven or eight children.”
He asked: “When you see families of six, seven, eight children per woman, are you sure it’s a choice from the girl?”
In contrast to his usual appearances in Europe, Macron addressed questions with humor in a noisy classroom atmosphere. Declining to answer questions about Burkina Faso’s domestic issues, he responded: “You talk to me as if I were the president of Burkina Faso, as if France were still a colonial power.”
Student Wilfried Sebgo praised Macron’s speech as realistic and honest. “I have the greatest hope that relations going forward between Africa and France will be frank because he is a president like us, who is young and who dares.”
Others seemed more skeptical. “It’s a political speech like all the others,” student Pascal Zoundi said.
After Macron’s visit to Ivory Coast for the summit he will stop in Ghana before returning to France.
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