Throughout last week, a violent anti-French and LGBTphobic campaign on social networks led to the cancellation of a visit to Cameroon by Jean-Marc Berthon, the French ambassador for LGBT+ rights.
Cameroonian civil society organizations had invited him to visit to discuss gender issues, but Cameroonian authorities vehemently protested the planned visit, which they claimed would go against the nation’s law against homosexual activity. Faced with a diplomatic and media outcry, Berthon abandoned the plan.
By Steeves Winner
Jean-Marc Berthon, France’s ambassador for LGBT+ rights, is the face of the human rights diplomacy promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Berthon was named to that position last October, in line with similar work initiated by other Western countries,in favor of LGBT+ people who are persecuted around the world. (For example, Jessica Stern, U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons.)
Berthon’s appointment is all the more significant given France’s turbulent and complex history with its former colonies, many of which have harshly penalized homosexuality, including Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Cameroon, Chad, Algeria, Guinea and Mauritania. As a reminder, in Cameroon, homosexuality is punishable by 6 months to 5 years’ imprisonment and fines of up to 200,000 CFA francs (about U.S. $333), under article 347-1 of July 2016.
Jean-Marc Berthon has the delicate task of bringing human rights diplomacy to life in keeping with French ideals in dialogue with African civil societies. The goal is to maintain a modern, non-paternalistic approach.
After a meeting earlier this year with Cameroonian activists who told him about human rights violations in the country, Berthon accepted an invitation from Cameroonian civil society organizations in Yaoundé to meet with him for a discussion on gender issues. The meeting was due to take place on June 30 at the Institut Français du Cameroun.
However, the ambassador’s planned visit was preceded by a poisonous barrage of animosity on social networks, with figures such as Nathalie Yamb doing their utmost to derail his visit. On various Facebook pages, anti-Berthon messages were posted: “Berthon, stay at home”, “Watch out for our children. No homosexuality in our country”. The messages contained a series of increasingly insulting slurs.
The public was informed on social networks that Lejeune Mbella Mbella, Cameroon’s Minister of External Relations, was opposed to the visit. In a press release dated June 19, the minister urged the French ambassador in Cameroon to cancel the visit.
Furthermore, the Minister of the Interior and the Governor of the Centre region were advised to prevent any activities relating to gender issues.
Faced with so much hostility, Berthon canceled his plans for visiting Cameroon. Cameroonians civil society organizations expressed dismay at this turn of events.
Steeves Winner, the author of this article, is a Cameroonian journalist who writes under a pseudonym. Contact him by email at [email protected].