France suspends cultural cooperation with three West African countries

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The French government has stunned the cultural world with a decision to halt all cooperation with artists and performers from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The union of artistic and cultural companies (Syndeac) has made public a message sent by the French culture ministry, at the request of the ministry of foreign affairs, demanding it “suspend all cooperation” with these West African states currently under the grip of military regimes hostile to France.

Sent on Wednesday to subsidised cultural venues across the country, the message stated that, “Any project of cooperation or financial support with institutions or citizens from these countries must be suspended at once with no exception”. It continued: “No invitation to any citizen from Mali, Niger and Burkina must be issued. From today, no visa will be delivered to these citizens, without exception.”

Nicolas Dubourg, the chairman of Syndeac, responded to the ministry’s message saying that “artistic freedom in France is protected by the law”. His union pointed out that “no such move has been taken against Russian artists” over the invasion of Ukraine, nor has cultural cooperation with dictatorships such as China ever been suspended. “Prohibition of the circulation of artists and their works has never been decreed before in an international crisis,” he said, warning against France’s cultural activities being subservient to its “diplomatic interests”. He added: “This is meaningless from an artistic point of view and a major political mistake.”

The minister of culture Rima Abdul Malak back-pedalled on Friday claiming that “no reprisals” had been taken against these countries and that there was “no boycott” of their musicians and performers. “We never boycott artists,” she said.

Nonetheless, she confirmed that no visas would be issued to citizens of these countries where consulates have been closed “for security reasons”.

Amid the confusion, Syndeac has requested an emergency meeting with the government to clarify the situation, pointing to a Francophone theatre festival starting next week in Limoges, southwest-central France, which will feature a large number of African participants.

“We are taken as hostages of political decisions,” says the festival’s director, Burkina Faso-born Hassane Kassi Kouyaté. “We have been working on some of these projects for the past three years, and now we are told the artists will not be allowed to come.”

Abdul-Malak said on Friday that existing partnerships would not be affected by the ban, only new projects that would require travel visas for artists.

All of France’s left-wing parties have protested against the measure, claiming that the government is sending the wrong message to African populations. “Artists are the expression of freedom,” said Olivier Faure, the leader of the Socialist party. “They are not responsible for the military coups staged in their countries.”

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