Macron’s last ditch effort to “re-colonise” Africa

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  • Protests in Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Niger spread anti-French sentiments across Africa
  • In 2020, the French National Assembly enacted legislation requiring the release of 27 pieces of art from two Paris museums to Senegal and Benin within a year, delivering part of Mr Macron’s commitment to plundered heritage
  • More than 150,000 French citizens live in Sub-Saharan Africa, and nearly 500,000 on the continent
  • Macron’s English language abilities, which are unrivalled by any previous French president, and his free-market attitude, will hasten the turn toward an Anglophone Africa

The 2022 French presidential election was held on 10 and 24 April 2022, where Emmanuel Macron was re-elected through a run-off against Marie Le Pen.

Macron’s re-election gives him a second chance to improve the France-Africa relationship that has been experiencing a downward trend.

France’s present and future intertwine, in many ways, with that of Africa. France and Africa have tight and multifaceted relations anchored in geographical proximity, lengthy history, and intensive human relationships and interactions.

The relationship exemplifies the power of human ties. As France’s closest neighbour continent, Africa has been a part of French culture through a shared past and African Diasporas in France.

While many French nationals have African ancestors, more than 150,000 French citizens live in Sub-Saharan Africa (and nearly 500,000 on the continent overall). France also has business units in the Indian Ocean, Mayotte and Réunion, where over one million French citizens dwell. 

Macron’s special relationship with Africa

Macron’s connection with Africa is unlike any other French Fifth Republic leader. Emmanuel Macron travelled to Abuja, Nigeria, for a six-month internship at the French Embassy while schooling at France’s famous National School of Administration (ENA).

“Born after independence and friends with famous members of the African Diaspora,” says Sina Schlimmer, a research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

Read: France Imperialism In Africa

Along with his diplomatic efforts, the future French President loved the country’s rich culture and has previously danced in public to the music of Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s legendary performer.

Even before his famous Ouagadougou speech, Macron established the Presidential Council for Africa, which comprised African and French representatives from fields such as entrepreneurship, health, sustainable development, sport, and culture to advise him on general issues confronting the continent.

Emmanuel Macron did not hesitate when he was first elected President of France to recognize that France has genuine interests in Africa, which he wanted to pursue through a partner-based strategy based on transparency and reciprocity.

President Macron laid out several precise pledges for establishing a new partnership and a new future for France and Africa in a speech made on November 28, 2017, at University Ki-Zerbo in Ouagadougou.

The speech broke new ground in all sectors, notably France’s vision of Africa and its African allies. On that day, President Macron announced a slew of measures aimed at African youth across the board and the end of what had been known as “Françafrique,” the French policy of imposing military, political and commercial clout over its former colonies on the continent.

The 2022 French presidential election was held on 10 and 24 April 2022, when Emmanuel Macron got re-elected into power through a run-off. [Photo/ NBC News]

The highs and lows of Macron’s strategy in Africa

 Macron is not the first French President to declare a new chapter in his country’s sensitive and often turbulent connections with its former African colonies. However, Mr Macron, then 39, argued vehemently that he was the one to break free from the dark regime of the past since he was too young to remember a period when African nations were still European colonies.

In 2020, the French National Assembly enacted legislation requiring the release of 27 pieces of art from two Paris museums to Senegal and Benin within a year, delivering part of Mr Macron’s commitment to plundered heritage. Macron and his ministers also made strides in pursuing non-francophone nations outside of Paris’ conventional area of influence, like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria, and gaining massive infrastructure tenders.

The annual Africa-France meeting in 2021 may indicate that Macron’s ambition to define a new agenda in the relationship between France and Africa is still on track. The summit did not invite any African political figures for the first time since its inception in 1973. Instead, entrepreneurs, artists, scholars, and athletes from across the continent were invited to Montpellier to examine “new views on Africa’s connection with France,” as Macron’s administration put it.

Although Macron’s aim of reviving the France-Africa cooperation is on track, attempts to improve France’s image in Africa have yielded mixed results. France was the subject of sour African grievances and criticism throughout his first five-year administration.

Protests in Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Niger spread anti-French sentiments across Africa. Protesters frequently blocked a convoy of French troops deploying in West Africa to battle Islamist extremists in November 2021. More recently, hundreds of protestors marched to the streets of Chad’s city, N’Djamena, to oppose France’s role in the country, with several French-linked businesses being destroyed.

“France’s rejection is due to the country’s longstanding paternalist and incoherent role in Africa, particularly by supporting authoritarian regimes seen as illegitimate by the population,” explains Laurent Duarte, executive secretary of Tournons La Page (TLP), an NGO that promotes democratic alternation in Africa.

“I believe Emmanuel Macron underestimates the true depth of anti-French sentiment, entrenched in colonial history and has grown beyond nationalist claims to become a pan-African movement,” he says.

Schlimmer of IFRI questioned if people invited to Macron’s meetings are true representatives of civil society. “Members of ‘civil society’ invited by the President during those numerous summits are an exclusive group since they are members of the African diaspora or have worked for a few diplomatic institutions,” she says.

Read: Tanzania: President visiting France, Belgium to rekindle relations

Macron‘s re-election in France offers fresh hope

Many African presidents congratulated Emmanuel Macron on his re-election as Head of state of the French Republic. Most heads of state, from Senegal’s Macky Sall to Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, Gabon’s Ali Bongo, and Niger’s Mohamed Bazoum, have praised the French president’s “excellent” election.

“Congratulations, President Emmanuel Macron, on your well-deserved re-election.” This is a testimony to your imaginative leadership that aims to unite rather than divide […],” Rwandan President Paul Kagame tweeted the day after Macron’s re-election on April 24.

“After a successful reconciliation process with Rwanda, one of Macron’s most significant successes in Africa has been building tight connections with his neoliberal counterpart Paul Kagame,” says Laurent Duarte.

On the continent, though, not everybody is excited, and there is much conjecture about how France’s Africa strategy will unfold during Macron’s second term. The stillness in Bamako, Conakry, and Ouagadougou underlines the difficulties Emmanuel Macron’s African strategy will face in the following years.

Redeploying French soldiers safely from Mali to neighbouring nations to counter Islamist extremism will be high on Macron’s African agenda. If combat operations were successful in combating terrorist groups, they were not followed by major political reforms or economic outcomes on the ground, implying that development and diplomacy might have been employed more successfully.

Improving the efficiency of counter-terrorism operations and developing confidence with new transitional governments in Burkina Faso and Guinea are not the only obstacles that Emmanuel Macron will confront. He will also need to repair the scars of the French colonial history and enhance the relationship with African civil society.

Macron’s bias toward English-speaking Africa will be critical during the next five years. In 2018, Macron established the France-Nigeria Investment Club during his visit to Nigeria to boost ties between the French and Nigerian commercial sectors. A comparable private-sector-led program was conducted in Kenya, where France built bridges and invested in the US$1.5 billion East African public-private partnership agreement for the 30-year administration of the Nairobi-Mau expressway.

Macron’s pragmatic approach to English-speaking Africa will be complemented by increased investments in the African private sector. Choose Africa, a department of the AFD (French Development Agency) formed in 2018, has already committed $3 billion to diverse African start-ups and MSMEs. More recently, the AFD stated that $138 million will be allocated to African entrepreneurs through the Digital Africa project between 2022 and 2025, double the Group’s commitment to them between 2018 and 2022.

Protests in Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Niger spread anti-French sentiments across Africa. [Photo/ The Defence Post]

Competition for control in France’s past colonies

However, as France develops into new African markets, its old colonies become more exposed to international influence. Emmanuel Macron’s biggest issue ahead is the advent of new nations in what was formerly considered France’s exclusive enclave.

Russian exports to Sub-Saharan African nations increased by 85 per cent between 2015 and 2020, primarily due to oil and agricultural items. In Senegal, for example, Russia has surpassed France as the largest source of wheat, responsible for more than half of Senegal’s wheat imports in 2020. The expanding presence of Turkey, China, and Russia is challenging France’s historical weight in the region’s trade balance.

In his second term, the foreign intervention also weighs on the Sahel region’s security crisis, which will be Macron’s most delicate diplomatic issue. The departure of French forces from Mali and the political issues surrounding it offers Russia an opportunity to reclaim military power on the continent through mercenaries after a long absence since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

The Ukraine conflict puts pressure on West African countries to unite in a bipolar world. Given their substantial economic and military links with Russia, most of them are likely to remain neutral.

In this scenario, France’s military engagement in the Sahel is shifting, with a more substantial presence in Niger and Côte d’Ivoire to protect the security of coastal states. “The Central African Republic and Mali were nations for which France was the sole political partner, and by picking Russia, they caused huge upheaval,” explains Laurent Duarte. “The problem, though, is that Macron’s whole African policy is based on the current tensions with Russia.”

Macron is in double jeopardy

Macron is confronted with a dual disruption: one he selected and one imposed on him. On the one hand, the French President will pursue his communication approach, bringing together African entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and other Diaspora members who share his vision of economic growth.

Macron’s English language abilities, which are unrivalled by any previous French president, combined with his free-market attitude, will hasten the turn toward Anglophone Africa, with rumours of a maiden presidential trip to Zambia or Tanzania before the end of the year.

On the other hand, Macron needs to handle escalating economic and military competition in French-speaking Africa. “These disturbances have also pulled African civilizations apart, as they have historical, interpersonal, diplomatic, and linguistic links with France.” Politics, in my opinion, is a form of intimacy. And Africa is a sensitive subject in France,” adds Duarte.

Read: France to enrol African students from Ukraine

I am a journalist who is an enthusiastic tech, business and investment news writer from across Africa. There is always something good happening in Africa but most gets lost in the stereotypes. I tell the stories that matter to the Africans for Africa. Have a tip? You can contact me at j.kangethe@theexchange.africa

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