By Efadul Huq
On 10th September 2023, Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, visited Bangladesh and was received with a gun salute and red carpet welcome. During the visit, Macron took a selfie with his Bangladeshi hosts after a boat ride on the Turag. Macron was there to enjoy the scenic beauty of Bangladesh’s rivers and observe a live demonstration of local fishing techniques. When I saw the image with its smiling faces and selfie pose on social media, it stirred up indignance across my chest, my shoulders, my stare. I had to walk around to get back my bearings. Perhaps, I was agitated because of my own proximity to Turag or Kohor Doriya as it was once called for its perilous width. I grew up close to this river, was nourished by Kohor Doriya, and over the years witnessed the river’s slow death at the hands of industry and real estate interests. I have joined hands with riverine communities and organizations along Turag to resuscitate our attio together. Kohor Doriya, now a ‘person’ according to rights of river jurisprudence, is dying because it takes in all of the poisons that industries dump into it when they manufacture knitwear and garments for EU and US markets, including France. The local fishing economy has been devastated by the multiplying global sweatshops in Dhaka. The image of Macron taking a selfie on Turag came to me like those infamous photos of white men hunters standing atop murdered bison, lions, and other wildlife.
The Bangladeshi state officials, NGOs, and locals responded to the French president quite predictably, showcasing a blatant desire for proximity to whiteness, wealth, and coloniality. These responses have been documented in a series of media reports. In them, you see an imperialist winning “the hearts of Bangladeshis with his curiosity to experience the local culture…” Bangladeshi state officials and NGO members sang their exhausting refrain of global victimhood—“Bangladesh is one of the worst victims of climate change”. Singer Rahul Ananda, who works with Alliance Française, welcomed Macron with flowers, flutes, and songs, and presented him with an ektara. I want to believe that these gestures came from genuine hospitality and heart. And at the same time I ask myself—why do we not put forward such generosity, heart, and hospitality to each other? It would be momentous if we welcomed climate-impacted migrants into our cities with warm shingara, red carpet, and a place to call home. All of that development aid money that Bangladesh received over the years has not been deployed to truly address the inequities entrenched in urban, peri-urban, rural, and coastal areas. Could we offer our returning remittance earners and our slum dwellers the respect we show towards a French president? Bangladeshi secular singers continue to extract and sell baul music and lifeworlds. What if we actually cared for our Bauls and their rich contribution to our social and political philosophies without turning them into commodities and resources to sell in the global market? In the face of these difficult questions, Macron’s visit appears to be an easy transaction. France gets a geopolitical ally while the ruling Bangladeshi party gets a nod of diplomatic legitimacy in its run up to a ‘non-election’ concerning which the US has threatened to impose visa sanctions.
The outpouring of joy and celebration at the occasion of Macron’s visit stands in sharp contrast to the anti-France protests in Bangladesh in 2020. Back then, defying the pandemic’s risks, Bangladeshi Islamist groups protested Macron’s support for a French Journal that published cartoon depictions of the Prophet. Now in 2023, Macron drove through streets decorated with his portraits, in the same city, Dhaka, where in 2020 his images were burned by large crowds. The near total absence of any public scrutiny of Macron’s visit is certainly not a promising sign that dominant Bangladeshi society nurtures diverse modes of thinking and living, wounded and disciplined as Bangladeshis are with the burden of modernity, progress, and development. Instead, the lack of protest during Macron’s 2023 visit indexes an authoritarian regime that has systematically silenced any opposition to its willfulness, using post-9/11 anti-terrorism discourse as a cover for dissolving agonistic democratic politics. Consider, for instance, that a few days ago a Bangladesh Court sentenced human rights activists, Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan, to two years in jail for reporting on state violence against Islamist groups. Bangladesh’s political precarity rests on the fact that religious fascism lurks, biding time under the reign of peaceful state authoritarianism. But let’s return to Macron.
Like most imperialists—with Twitter accounts, these days—Macron came with promises. France will help Bangladesh fight poverty and conserve its environment, particularly the Sundarbans which is the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forests. France will support Bangladesh in its transition into ‘smart’ Bangladesh. France will also provide loans for infrastructure development. For instance, Macron promised French support for a renewable energy transition in Bangladesh, ostensibly impressed with the work of our climate activists, parliamentarians, and NGOs. He invited Bangladesh to join the Global Biodiversity Framework Fund (GBFF) to better support its conservation efforts. Macron wants to enter into an ‘adaptation pact’ with Bangladesh to support adaptation efforts through the French Development Agency. I want to believe that all of this is necessary, possible, and will lead to Bangladesh and France’s mutual growth and fulfillment. I want to believe that we will get close and touch each other as equals across the global racial hierarchies of the present planetary conjuncture, where we have to continue demanding that Black and Brown bodies matter. I want to believe that we can extricate ourselves from the generations of wounds, traumas, and broken promises and lift ourselves into an entanglement of sovereignties where we autonomously decide societal boundaries to secure a good life for all. And at the same time, other memories, voices, whispers pass through me.
The past decades of Bangladesh’s development and ‘aid lab’ global persona, backed by developed countries, has been accompanied by violent dispossessions and oppressions of peoples and ecologies in the eastern Bengal Delta. Globally, the aid that rich countries promised to poorer countries for climate efforts did not arrive. When the aid came, it came in unhelpful ways, like loans that don’t help vulnerable communities but instead enrich investors. The thing about imperialism is that it makes taking seem like giving. Macron seems to have come for a business trip to solidify a transactional relationship and find an ally (a UN vote). France needs new allies especially now that various African nations are rightly resisting France’s power and influence within their territories. So, Macron sold Bangladesh one more satellite and ten airplanes, in return for nothing substantial that would make a difference in people’s lives. This ancient process of taking was wrapped in irony.
Macron proclaimed that France is offering Bangladesh an alternative to China’s “new imperialism” and this third way is based on democratic principles and rule of law, devoid of any bullying or unsustainable schemes. To take this declaration seriously, I would have to pretend a stupidity that dominators assume about the dominated. I would have to completely ignore that France is an imperialist power that is still holding on to its territories, including islands in the Indo-Pacific, and collects colonial-era taxes from former French colonies in Africa.
Bangladesh and France’s plan for sustainable adaptation, too, stand in stark contrast to the fact that France is selling airplanes to Bangladesh, proposing green techno-fixes, and is currently engaged in trading that is harmful to Bangladesh’s riverine ecologies and livelihoods of its vulnerable communities. Imperialism, which has always been a collaborative venture between ‘locals’ and ‘foreigners’, offers Bangladesh an easy integration into a global system of earth killing and subsequent greenwashing of that extraction and murder. Imperialism doesn’t always require explicit force. It instead operates, in its more insidious form, through a welcoming invitation to assimilate into its violent systems. Perhaps we Bangladeshis, too, feel that we will be safer if we assimilate into an imperial mode of living. I worry that assimilation ultimately leaves us hurt, and we keep accumulating and passing on such generational hurts across time and space to our relatives—human and more than human—to our ecologies, to our beings, while we are here and long after we are gone.
I don’t want to assimilate into the imperial order of things. I don’t dream of development and inclusion into a blood-soaked system. When I unfold my difficult desires to a friend, they sing out Moushumi Bhowmick’s song to me in response:
আধমরা সেই ফুলের গাছটা That half-dead flower tree
সেই গাছটাতে, নতুন কুঁড়িতে. In that tree, the rhythm of new
নতুন প্রাণের ছন্দ life in a new bud.
বাঁচার সে কি আনন্দ! What joy of living!
These words remind me of the possibility that a new bud can grow on a half-dead tree. So, I look to the agitational formations in France that are opposing greenwashing and climate apartheid against a French government that criminalizes climate activism. I look to the collectives in Bangladesh like Ponchobot Andolon that are offering another way to root ourselves, that is not about finding replacement for our energy desires but learning to desire differently. I look to my fellow mutual aid and solidarity organizers who are working with Turag’s fishing communities to create spaces of new life within half-dead watersheds, so that we can rebirth the rivers in the Bengal Delta from which we spring.
Photograph and video from author’s personal archive.