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Thursday, 19 July 2012


Like the British state, the French state knows how to do ostentation. President Hollande ceased to be "Mr Normal" the moment he assumed office - an office which surrounds him with men (only men)in splendid uniforms, mounted on splendid horses, helmets and swords polished to perfection. It's not really Republican ostentation, it's Imperial, like that so often on display in London. It's just that in France, the State is the Empire.

I began to think back to 1977 to the coronation of the Emperor Bokassa I, an event entirely managed by the French government in collaboration with its haute couture industry but at a cost to the dirt-poor Central African Republic in excess of its entire annual state budget.

Google the photographs and you will see how Europe colonised Africa in more than one way. The ostentation we flaunt in the faces of our own subjects returns in the farce and tragedy of Bokassa's delusions of grandeur. There is even an imitation of that Coronation coach.

Bokassa was just one of many tyrants and kleptocrats sustained by the French over decades after independence. He had uranium. So what if he looted his country, tortured and murdered his opponents and even personally clubbed to death school pupils? Their offence? Protesting the cost of their compulsory school uniforms - made by a single supplier, the factory owned by one of Bokassa's many wives.

Liberty? Equality? Fraternity? Not for Africa.

If we began to address what we did in Africa and have done there up until the present, and if we examined how our own ostentatious images of power have been incorporated into the rhetoric of local tyrants, then I cannot see how we could continue to spend our own money on coronation coaches or black horses or red uniforms.

And looking at the medals on the chests of a Bokassa or a Mugabe or a Gadaffi - how can Prince Charles still go on wearing his? Of course, there is the difference that he didn't award them to himself; they are the birthday badges which, over the years, his Mum has given him.

Added 25 July 2018: This Blog is expanded into the chapter "Ostentation" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

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