France’s Culture Minister on Friday said the suspension of visas for artists from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso was due to security concerns in light of the recent military coups in those countries and in no way a “boycott”.
The three Sahel countries are in the hands of military putschists, and diplomatic ties with France have become strained.
However, Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak has sought to reassure professionals in the arts sector.
Promoters received a government memo on Wednesday ordering them to cease all cooperation with institutions and artists of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger and to suspend their financial support for them.
Several unions representing artists and performers on Thursday denounced the directive and requested an immediate meeting with the Minister.
“France has no intention to sever its cultural ties with Burkina Faso, the Mali and Niger, but will not be able to issue visas to artists from these countries immediately,” Abdul Malak told RTL radio on Friday.
She expressed her regret that the message had caused misunderstanding, adding that she had asked for clarifications to be sent.
“France has decided to reduce its teams in the embassies and consulates and close visa services therefore it is not possible to deliver visas for artists or any other person who made visa requests from these countries to come to France at the present time,” Abdul Malak said.
“France has always been an open nation for artists, so it is not changing its position. We are adapting to an extremely challening security context in which French buildings and French teams in these three countries have been targeted”, she explained.
This, in reference to attacks made on the French embassy in Niger during anti-French protests in recent months.
“We never boycott artists,” Abdul Malak insisted, adding that all artists who already have tours planned or planned shows, these will be able to come to France.
Sébastien Lagrave, director of the Africolor music festival, being held from 17 November – 24 December in the Paris region, slammed the move as “violent and very abrupt”.
He said the consequences were already being felt.
“I have three concerts by Malian artists that will be cancelled: Nahawa Doumbia, BKO Quintet, Boubacar Traoré,” Lagrave told French agency AFP.
“We know very well that most artists are granted short-term visas, those who already have a visa are a minority, for a festival like us in November, we request visas from September, so it’s impossible for them to come.”
Lagrave also contested the Minster’s explanation behind the visa limitations.
“The Minister of Culture says that there is no visa service in operation in these countries, this is false, the service providers are still open, we can process files,” he said.
Meanwhile Patrick Penot, director of the Sens Interdit theatre festival, being held in mid-October in Lyon, told AFP: “The way in which [the memo] was written, raises a lot of questions.”
Penot is waiting for the arrival of a Burkinabé actress currently without a visa. “We hope for a solution for her, which is essential for one of the shows,” he said, adding that artists were being “punished under the pretext that their government is in trouble with ours”.
Several political figures also spoke out against the Culture Ministry’s handling of the communiqué.
Aurélie Filippetti, who was culture minister under former president François Hollande, said the decision was “scandalous” and undermined the image of France.
Asked about the issue during a trip to Burgundy on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron said the responsibility lay with the juntas in control in the countries in question.
He said that despite suspended relations with those nations, no cultural action on French soil had been affected.
“In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, you have putschists who are attacking us today,” Macron said. “They are attacking the culture in their country and are preventing us from producing culture.”
Mali was the first to experience a coup, in 2020, then again in 2021, followed by Burkina Faso in 2022 and Niger in 2023. Chad, Guinea and Gabon have also witnessed their own coups during this period.
On 29 July and 6 August, France interrupted development aid with Niger and Burkina Faso.
A similar move was made with Mali in November 2022.