At a G20 summit press conference in Hamburg on July 8, French President Emmanuel Macron answered a call for an African “Marshall Plan” from a Cote d’Ivoire journalist. Macron’s stern, clear-eyed rebuff was startling, as he dismissed the idea with some disdain: “We among the West have been discussing such Marshall plans for Africa for many years and have in fact given many such plans already. So if it were so simple, it would have been fixed already.”

He went on: “The challenge of Africa, is totally different, much deeper, it is civilization today.” He cited failed states trafficking in drugs, weapons, humans, and cultural property, Islamic terrorism, and said for a kicker: “when countries have still today 7 to 8 children per woman, you can decide to spend billions of euros, you stabilize nothing.”

Macron touched the third rail. He drew immediate, international censure for his antiquated views, insulting Africa, and white European supremacism. Macron is France’s new roi soleilHow could this happen—the Atlantic beau monde asked itself in horror—this horrible, unthinkable gaffe? Finally, in Foreign Policy Remi Adekoya posed the question, “Is It Racist to Say Africa Has ‘Civilizational’ Problems?”

“The French president got in hot water for noting the continent’s dysfunction. But nothing he said was false,” the article said. “Defensiveness and denial are not helping the hundreds of millions of impoverished Africans living in want, insecurity, and fear,” Adekoya added.

The possible impact of sub-Saharan African demography and migrations in 21st century Europe is “almost too overwhelming to contemplate,” says a world-traveled London banker I know. But I do hope some very smart, sensible people at the United Nations, World Bank, Palais de l’Élysée, and European Union are giving this serious thought. I know that Beijing is.

In the last four years, some 600,000 sub-Saharan Africans have entered Italy uninvited from North Africa. Without a functioning government, Libya is a preferred embarkation point. Saturated with EU good-think, most Italians still pretend non c’è, not here, studiously avoiding both africani and discussion of migration. Clustered forlornly in squares and railroad stations, riding bicycles aimlessly, many newcomers seem entirely lost. It is impossible to get honest information on the tent camps and other government policies.

Italy does not want to be left holding the EU’s bag. It is threatening to issue temporary EU visas to 200,000 unwanted African residents in the country. Austria has threatened to close the Brenner Pass. Borderless Europe is strained.

About 4,100 migrants were plucked from the sea on July 12, according to Rome’s Il Messaggero, the Coast Guard coordinating a total of 20 rescue operations; migrants were found on board 12 inflatable rafts, two barges, and five smaller vessels. 

Two days later, an Italian rescue ship run by Médecins Sans Frontières arrived in the port of Salerno carrying 935 migrants, including 16 children and 7 pregnant women, if rescue is even the right word. Rome does not want Internet-streaming Africans bobbing helplessly in the Mediterranean. More than 2,300 migrants have already died in central Mediterranean waters this year.

They come from Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Somalia, and Mali, all over. Mostly Muslim, sometimes Christian or animist, they come, barely literate and with few skills, from a world of shanties, disease and danger, from vast urban slums with zero sanitation or barely electrified villages, a world of bushmeat and fetishes, where life is very cheap. 

They want to raise their standard of living in Europe’s welfare states, which is not hard to do. And as everyone knows, including the UN, World Bank, Macron, and the EU establishment, there are hundreds of millions more back home, itching to migrate, as well as an African population explosion going on.

Declaring facts off-limits or hate speech doesn’t mean critical global issues are going to disappear or solve themselves. Policies to date suggest a large section of Europe’s ruling class finds it impossible—thinks it immoral—to stanch an existential threat to its own peoples’ civilization and security.

To make things right in Africa in the 21st century, or at least stable, to use Macron’s well-chosen word, it might take the Chinese, who are likely to have fewer qualms about yuan diplomacy, resource extraction, policed borders, population control, and slave labor than a dispirited West.

It’s true, Macron uttered forbidden thoughts. But instead of condemnation, he deserves praise for using his platform, public visibility, and political office to say something honest about Africa’s challenges. Such candor and courage are all too rare among Europe’s leaders, and both are sorely needed on this incendiary issue.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.