Stephen Smith’s La ruée vers l’Europe caused a ruckus when it appeared in France last year and the English translation, due out shortly from Polity under the title The Scramble for Europe, will no doubt have the same effect on this side of the Channel. A short book evidently aimed at a wide readership, La ruée extrapolates from present trends in African population growth and economic development to predict a large-scale rise in migration to Europe. Over the next two generations, Smith argues, ‘more than 100 million Africans are likely to cross the Mediterranean Sea’; by 2050, ‘between a fifth and a quarter of the European population would therefore be of African descent.’ Some eu politicians, Smith writes, have hailed this as a ‘demographic boon’, Young Africa providing Old Europe with youth and diversity, ‘brains and brawn’. In Smith’s view, however, it would be a bad thing for both continents.

La ruée vers l’Europe was duly lauded by Emmanuel Macron, who told tv viewers that Smith had really hit the nail on the head and described the situation ‘fantastically well’. His Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, hailed Smith’s ‘realist’ diagnostic of the ‘migrant crisis’ and awarded the book a prize, as did the Académie française and La Revue des deux mondes. Meanwhile in Le Monde diplomatique Benoît Bréville characterized Smith’s predictions as ‘myths’, arguing that the idea of a rush for Europe was a political fabrication. In La Vie des idées, the geographer Julien Brachet went further: ‘Let’s be clear: Smith’s proposition is ideological, xenophobic and racist.’ At face value, however, Smith’s credentials don’t suggest a hardened bigot. Born in Connecticut, educated in Paris and Berlin, a roving correspondent and then, for fifteen years, the Africa editor at Libération, Smith is perhaps best known in the Anglosphere for his contributions to the London Review of Books and plays a leading role in African and African-American Studies at Duke University. What is his case in La ruée, and how should it be evaluated?

Contrary to Macron and Le Drian’s claims, Smith’s book is not a description of existing reality—migration from Africa to Europe is low and falling; most African migration is within the continent—but a future projection, based on extrapolated population trends. Smith opens with the longue durée history of Africa, seen in demographic terms. Between 1500 and 1900, Smith estimates, the number of the continent’s inhabitants rose by only 20 per cent, from 80 to 95 million, while populations quintupled in China and Europe. In 1650, Africans had made up a fifth of the world’s population. By 1930 they counted for only 13 per cent. The explanation lay, first, with the slave trade, which involved the deportation of 28 million Africans by 1900, 12 million of those going to the Americas. Still more catastrophic was the microbial impact of nineteenth-century colonization, when between a third and a half of the people of West and Central Africa died from their encounter with imported diseases, at levels comparable to Europe’s fourteenth-century Black Death.

One result was that, as La ruée puts it, the continent’s population became its most valuable public good: while farming land was abundant, labour was precious. ‘Wealth in people’, socially and culturally structured through lineage groups, with a concomitant emphasis on inter-personal relations, became a driving force of African history, Smith argues. He cites Facing Mount Kenya, Kenyatta’s memoir of life in a Kikuyu village around 1900. Kenyatta describes a society in which ‘the homestead is the school’, and where education centred on personal relationships and proper codes of conduct. Children learned through imitation of their elders, ‘a rehearsal of the activities which are the serious business of all the members of the tribe’. The main objective was ‘the building of character’: for ‘character is formed primarily through relations with other people, and there is really no other way in which it can grow. Europeans assume that, given the right knowledge and ideas, personal relations could take care of themselves.’ This, Kenyatta thought, was ‘the most fundamental difference in outlook’ between Africans and Europeans.

On Smith’s account, African population growth only began to recover in the interwar period but since then has accelerated ‘at a rate never before seen in human history’, as falling infant mortality rates have combined with low prevalence of modern contraception—below 15 per cent, La ruée notes—and a young average age of mothers at first birth. From 300 million in 1960, Sub-Saharan Africa’s population had grown to a billion in 2010, and Smith projects a further rise to 2.5 billion by 2050 and to 5 billion by 2100, when on his estimate Africans will constitute 40 per cent of humanity. Already, he argues, this growth has had far-reaching socio-economic effects. First, while the continent is still predominantly rural—in the first decade of the twenty-first century, only 35 per cent of Africans lived in cities—there has been insufficient economic development in the countryside or at village level to accommodate the growing numbers of young people. According to Smith, 96 per cent of peasant farmers cultivate plots of less than 5 hectares, and cereal yield stands at 1.4 tons per hectare, compared to 8.1 tons in the us. Some 400 million still suffer from chronic malnutrition, which impairs the growth of 60 per cent of children. Accordingly, over the last few generations hundreds of millions of young Africans have left their villages, searching for work. But local towns and cities cannot absorb their labour either: ‘Although they are themselves industrious, they have moved into cities with no industry, where they manage their lives, such as they are, on a day-to-day basis.’ The next stage is the move from provincial town to regional hub: Abidjan, Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg. The continent’s urban conglomerations have been growing at an even faster rate than its population: Dakar, Nairobi and Harare are all ten times bigger than they were in 1960; Khartoum and Mogadishu, twenty times; Kampala, Kinshasa and Ouagadougou, thirty times; Abidjan forty times and Lagos sixty times greater. By 2050, Smith estimates, 60 per cent of Africans will be living in large cities.

A second outcome of this population growth has been a revolutionary transformation in the ratio of young people to old: 80 per cent of the African population is now under 30. Given ‘traditional’ principles of seniority and ‘respect for elders’, Smith argues, this has had profound political and cultural effects. African governments are, by and large, ‘gerontocracies’, with an average age gap between rulers and ruled of 43 years, compared to 32 years in Latin America, 30 years in Asia and 16 years in the eu, with its ageing population. This discrepancy risks reducing young Africans to second-tier citizens, young women even more so. ‘Cynically speaking’, Smith writes, ‘the value of human life has declined in inverse proportion to the continent’s unprecedented population growth.’ (This is indeed a profoundly cynical statement, and baffling too: there is no reason why quantitative increase in population need qualitatively devalue human life.) The treasuring of inter-personal relations that Kenyatta recalled is over, Smith implies. ‘The price of what is available in abundance depreciates, while scarcity increases value. That rule applies today for young people in a world predominantly populated by older adults.’ Citing Paul Collier, the English developmental economist best known for telling Africans to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, Smith argues that the ‘youth bulge’ endangers the continent’s democratic future. Since huge proportions of the population in many Sub-Saharan countries are below the legal voting age, the ballot appears ‘more an age-based privilege than a majoritarian right’. As such, Africa’s youth ‘destabilize democracy’.

Rebellion against the ‘primacy of the elders’ finds an ideological home in the new forms of religiosity that have swept the continent, Smith writes. He quotes from Nicolas Argenti’s study of youth in Cameroon, which contends that Pentecostalism functions as a rejection of ‘everything the elders stood for, effecting a continuous state of rupture with the past by means of continuous personal renewal, to establish a life free from enslavement by Satan—where Satan can be seen as an embodiment of the gerontocratic structures that so alienate the young.’ Most significantly, for Smith, evangelical gospels of prosperity may presuppose a Protestant nuclear-family ethic that upends traditional rules of reciprocity and kinship ties, with born-again believers refusing to take in relatives or accusing them of ‘sponging’—a radical break with previous norms. Smith notes that militant Islam in the Sahel region has sometimes mobilized as a revolutionary assault against ageing rulers’ corruption.