Henri Lopès embodies the perfect figure of the diplomat. Neat presentation, strict know-how, like a controlled verb and de rigueur courtesy.
Author of eight novels, he was ambassador of Congo to Paris and other countries of the European Union, member of the High Council of La Francophonie and personal representative of the Congolese president to the International Organisation of La Francophonie, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and President of the Africa Group. His great career impresses, as he was previously Prime Minister and deputy Director-General of UNESCO. Interview with a lovely and remarkable being.
How can we raise the profile of Africa in France?
I think what we’re doing is already very important. The main job of an African ambassador in France is to represent his country to the French authorities and to follow all bilateral issues. I can assure you that this is no mean feat because France is not just any country. But my wish is that Africa should be better known, that it should not be presented by clichés, by preconceived ideas on every level: be it political, be it cultural… That we should succeed in getting the French out of the preconceived ideas that are fed to them by the media.
What is your proudest achievement since becoming Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, and in particular as head of the Africa Group?
It’s getting my colleagues to get together and find interest in these meetings. It’s not easy, because every ambassador has an extremely busy schedule. What’s more, many of our countries don’t have the possibility of having diplomatic representations in every country, so they are accredited to several states. This means a lot of travel for ambassadors based in Paris. I’m proud to be able to bring my many colleagues together for specific tasks.
A source of regret?
The regret of not having been able to do better.
But why hasn’t Africa taken off after fifty years of national sovereignty?
After fifty years, it’s regrettable that Africa hasn’t reached the level of the countries of the Middle East. But these countries have arrived thanks to a particularly large oil windfall. It’s also regrettable that Africa is not on a par with Asia either. However, I would say that while ten years ago we might have been sceptical about Africa’s future, that’s no longer the case today. There are a whole series of parameters that suggest that Africa can become an emerging power. How soon? I’m not a prophet, and I wouldn’t venture that. But at the moment, we are seeing signs that Africa is not static, but is in the process of moving, and in a fundamental way. The other element that will enable Africa to evolve more rapidly than in the previous half-century is that a whole series of well-educated African executives are arriving en masse, in Africa or outside the continent, but who are motivated by the idea of bringing something new to Africa’s development. We’re going to see the emergence of a whole new breed of African entrepreneurs, a middle class that will radically change the conditions of development in Africa.
You’re a writer, diplomat and politician all rolled into one. What’s the link in this professional trinity?
There can indeed be a gulf between political life and creative writing. But I’m not the first to find myself in this situation, in this marriage. Think of Césaire and Senghor, and there are many examples in the past of people who took part in public life, particularly in Latin America. Did you know, for example, that the famous song Guantanamera, which everyone sings, who wrote it? Who wrote it? A Cuban politician by the name of José Marti. This is an example of the alliance between poetry and political combat.
How do you manage to be at the window and in the street at the same time, in other words, an actor and a critic?
I believe that the very nature of human beings is to think before acting and to think after acting. Even in action, we have to keep a cool head, otherwise, we lose our way. The hallmark of the intellectual is to be thinking all the time.
Is crossbreeding an essence for you?
Yes, because life is rich. It’s rich both inside and outside the home. You discover brothers and sisters everywhere. If you open a book by Confucius or Plato, you’ll realise that everything that was said centuries and centuries before us is still relevant today.
With such intense diplomatic activity, where do you find the time to write?
That’s my big problem, so I can’t give you a short answer. That’s my secret too. At times, I give up everything, I don’t say when, and take time for myself and my writing. But I admit it’s not easy. If I didn’t have these responsibilities, these functions that I’ve had in my life in various aspects, both in my country, at Unesco and here, I wonder if I would have had this view of human nature. These are activities, trades and professions in which I’ve had to deal with situations involving people, sometimes tragically. It’s all part of the writer’s inspiration for his subjects and his creations.
Is Une enfant de Poto Poto a roman à clef that celebrates you?
I can’t help the reader see it as a roman à clef, but that’s not at all what I set out to do. When it comes to literature, I tend to think that when you don’t know the author, when you’ve never met him, you receive the novel as a story that’s been imagined. But as soon as you know the author, you immediately try to find him in the novel, and then discover in the novel’s setting the way he lived or the characters he knew.
Are there any similarities between you and your hero?
Look, a writer is like an actor. He plays several roles that have nothing to do with him. He puts himself in the skin of his role and some people confuse them with their real character. It’s the same with an author.
What was the state of mind of young Africans at the dawn of independence?
At that time, we had two main concerns. The first was to succeed in our studies, to be the best in them, and to have good training when we returned to our countries. We were the first generation of students from many countries, and we wanted to be the best. The second concern was to fight against the injustices of the colonial system and to achieve independence for our countries. There was a third idea linked to the second, and that was to achieve African unity. This is an old idea that some of our elders had already had. I’m thinking in particular of an English West Indian, George Padmore, who was undoubtedly the first pan-Africanist, and whom Kwame Nkrumah drew a great deal of inspiration from, and whom Nkrumah brought close to him as an advisor at the independence of his country, Ghana.
What remains today of your dreams of yesteryear?
In terms of achievements, the first reality is undoubtedly the independence of African countries. It’s something that seems natural today, but at the time was synonymous with wanting to reach for the moon. What cast more doubt on this idea was our parents saying: “But we don’t know how to make a needle and you want us to be independent”. You know, you have dreams at one point, and then you deal with reality. The main thing is to keep hope alive, otherwise, we wouldn’t be making any progress. Today, I try to put my experience at the disposal of those who are younger, to explain to them with modesty and as little arrogance as possible what has been done and to show them the long road ahead.
Do you write in the morning or the evening?
I write in the morning. If I didn’t write this morning, I wouldn’t write this afternoon. I’m not sure why. You know, the sky is bluer in the morning than in the afternoon. Storms usually break out in the afternoon or evening. The purity of the sky matches the purity within me to be able to write. I have much more energy in the morning than in the evening. I can write without stopping for many hours in the morning.
What profession fascinated you?
I wanted to be a teacher. I was one from the start. For me, it was a position where you were in contact with a youth that went beyond that of your own family, and which enabled you, through the teaching you provided, to reflect on our situation in the world, to make high demands on ourselves first and then on our society.
Your antidote to stress?
If I knew, I’d feel better.
Your essential characteristic?
Constantly ask myself who I am.
Your mantra or favourite phrase?
“Nothing human is foreign to me” Terence.
Your greatest success in life?
Your biggest fear?
Not being up to my standards.
I don’t have a hero.
Your daily driving force?
The desire not to disappoint.
Your bedside book?
I don’t have a bedside book, but some master books. I’d mention: Letters to a Young Poet (Rainer Maria Rilke) and a lot of poems you have in your head, which are like songs. I’m thinking of François Villon’s line: “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? It says it is all about the passage of time. It is ephemeral, like the things of life. Life itself is ephemeral.
The place that soothes you?
We always return to the places where we grew up. Because you see yourself as the child you were and the environment you lived in. From this point of view, I’d like to mention a place called Maloukou, which is the village of my childhood. It’s a place to which my memory always returns, but which doesn’t soothe me. Because I can find peace in a foreign place.
Your idea of happiness?
There is never happiness, but there are moments of happiness. Certainly, the day I passed my baccalauréat, the day I got married, the day my country became independent, the day Mandela was freed, and the election of Barack Obama, were all moments of great happiness for me. Moments when you forget all life’s misfortunes. But I don’t think there’s a permanent state of happiness.
Which object are you most attached to?
None, because I don’t believe in fetishes. But I remain sensitive to objects that remind me of people I’ve loved and who are no longer with me.
What does luxury mean to you?
Swimming alone in a large, tropical-temperature pool.
What’s your seduction trick?
I don’t know if I’m seductive. So I don’t have any secrets in that area. I try to be very friendly. And I get angry when I’m in a bad mood. But it happens to me like it happens to everyone else. I don’t think I’m always in a bad mood.
The phrase that throws you off balance?
“Who are you?
The emotion of your life?
When I met the woman who was to become my wife.
The values did your parents teach you?
It’s a rule. I was born during the colonial era when there was racism in our country. My parents instilled in me the values of never complaining, of never blaming my failures on anyone but myself, and of being the best at everything to overcome society’s prejudices.
An angry cry?
It’s not fair!
A magic wand?
I’d change the fact that we only have one life. I’d like, when I stand before Saint Peter, for him to say, “Who are you? And I’d answer, “Henri Lopès”, and he’d say, “What are you doing here? We’ve made a mistake. It’s not your turn yet. Go and do it again!
Told to Alain Metodjo