More than 48 millions French voters will cast their ballot on Sunday 10. They will choose the two candidates who shall face each other in the second round of the French presidential race. Ileana Santos is one of the many French citizens who have multiple cultures. The French and Togolese entrepreneur has launched a public policy incubator dedicated to strengthening Africa-Europe relations. She will vote for the first time on Sunday and tells Africanews how her cultural heritage influences her social commitment.
French voters often cite purchasing power, health or climate change as some of the pressing issues they take into account when casting their ballot. Does your dual culture makes you more alert to additional issues?
Ileana Santos: We all share the same concerns. After almost two years in this Covid-crisis, it is normal for any citizen to look for ways to improve the quality of our environment in order to prevent the spread of diseases. Similarly, purchasing power is a central issue. The conflict in Ukraine, and before that the pandemic, have both been factors which contributed to the increase in energy and food prices despite government aid.
In truth, it is not my dual culture which makes me interested in different social issues. It is first a matter of interest and skills. My background and my commitments bring my attention to issues related to the youth, the promotion of volunteering, employment, the European development and the Africa-Europe relations.
Would you consider that the Africa-Europe relations were widely talked about during the presidential race?
Ileana Santos: I wouldn't say I heard much about this issue during the campaign. Rather, I have noticed a lack of knowledge on the part of some candidates on this very subject or a lack of interest ... which is a pity. I have been working on these issues for almost two years. In my opinion, we have taken a good course and we must continue to move forward to achieve results. Because that's precisely what people are waiting for: results!
How does your special connection to Togo, and Africa at large, nurture your citizen participation?
Ileana Santos: I was born and raised in Lomé. I always saw my parents giving their time for others, getting involved in associations. Somehow, I was inspired by these models. Through my experiences in voluntary community service, internships and mentoring, I had the opportunity to do go to India, Dakar, the United States and Canada. All this made me who I am today. Commitment allows you to take part in a collective adventure and to work for a common goal. It also gives the opportunity to acquire new skills. The path I started walking in Lomé is the one I am continuing here and my bicultural identity is an asset for France, contrary to what some people may say. And I am proud to repeat it again and again.
You made up a word 'afro-optimism', what does it mean to be afro-optimistic?
Ileana Santos: Afro-optimism denotes action! It always refers to the pair of words action/result and in our public policy incubator, we are diverse. Therefore, we must not restrict the discussion around the Africa-Europe relations to Africans and Europeans alone. Everyone has the right to take part in the debate in order to link up companies, to seek capital and I believe in a mutually beneficial economic axis. I am French and Togolese, I am a bridge and I belong to my two continents. My role is therefore to be able, through my two cultures and with other young people like me, to put our skills to use. When we come back from different African countries, we are inspired by what happens there, by the innovations and ways of thinking and we can try to replicate them here.
The 'material' that we take from the field is essential. In other words, when you have the opportunity and the responsibility to talk to decision-makers, you come with theoretical things of course, but you also have the report of lived-experiences of the people you met in the field. And I do this on both sides of the Mediterranean, downstairs at my house in Paris, at the baker's and in Lomé. Thanks to this, you are anchored in reality because we do not all experience the same realities. Then it's up to me to formalise them and pass on messages to transform ideas into public policies. This is also a mission I give myself.
To which future do you dedicate your efforts?
Ileana Santos: A future with win-win relations for Africa and Europe. For me, it means that we've managed to direct the financing we have to where they are actually needed, that we've managed to encourage the private sector to invest in large infrastructure projects and not expect everything from the states and institutions... I have an economic outlook, but this is what I am aiming for when I commit myself. I was recently rereading Kwame Nkrumah's book Africa must unite and that's what I'm waiting for, a New Deal Africa makes with itself. The youth must also take their part because if the leaders are not up to the task, as citizens we can be up to the challenge of history and what humanity expects of us. Africa is going to save itself and Europe can accompany it in this dynamic. Who else but us, who have two cultures, can be the bridges between the continents?
What would you say to young voters or anyone who isn't sure to go cast their ballot on Sunday?
Ileana Santos: I would share my own history. Voting on Sunday will be the first time I vote in a presidential election in France and I value what a chance it is to live in a democratic country, to be able to express a voice which you are sure, guaranteed, will be respected. When we see the war on our doorstep in Ukraine, we can be shaken and rightly so and pursue citizen participation. If we don't vote and therefore decide, others will do it for us and we won't be able to complain. Voting is also about making a list of choices: for our daily lives, how we see it, what we want to see happen over the next five years. Do we want better wages, what do we want in terms of a sustainability transition, what do we expect from social justice...? I have already made my choice.