PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron has a reputation for disarming hostile audiences with repartee and humour, but his latest verbal jousting on a trip to Africa has drawn criticism at home.
In an interview broadcast late on Wednesday, Macron dismissed as “ridiculous” suggestions he had offended Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Kabore when he quipped with students that Kabore had left the room to fix the air-conditioning.
The exchange came during a boisterous 90-minute question-and-answer session at Ouagadougou University earlier this week that followed Macron’s promise of a new era in relations between France and Africa.
When one of the students in the audience grilled Macron over what he would do about Burkina Faso’s constant power cuts, the 39-year-old replied: “You speak to me like I‘m a colonial power, but I don’t want to look after electricity in Burkina Faso. That’s the job of your president.”
Earlier heckles turned into laughter and applause.
When Kabore later left the hall, Macron joked: “You see, he’s gone. He’s left to fix the air-conditioning.” Shortly after, a smiling Kabore returned to his seat.
Macron’s remark touched off a social media frenzy, splitting those who defended it as lighthearted banter and others who complained of paternalistic overtones.
Far-right rivals accused him of “bordering on racism”.
“That’s ridiculous,” Macron said in an interview with France 24. “We have a relationship of equals, that means we can joke with one another.”
Macron has courted trouble with his language before. He was widely criticised this summer after saying that Africa faced “civilisational” problems.
In France he has provoked anger by describing opponents as “slackers” and urging workers to “stop kicking up a bloody mess”.
Firing back at his critics, Macron said it was those who deemed it inappropriate to joke with an African leader who were guilty of patronising the continent.
“I would have had a laugh about it with any European leader with whom I have this kind of relationship. I don’t with (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel, but I do for example with (European Commission president) Jean-Claude Juncker,” he said.
Reporting by Richard Lough; editing by Luke Baker and Richard Balmforth