Africa-France: Can Macron’s ‘new partnership’ succeed?
Africa has occupied a significant place in Emmanuel Macron’s political agenda but he will need more than fine speeches to change the longstanding paternalist image of France on the continent.
On 28 November 2017, a few months after a substantial win in his first presidential election, Emmanuel Macron made an appearance at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.
In a two-and half-hour speech, attended by 800 university students, the newly elected French president laid the groundwork for a new relationship with Africa.
Macron’s choice to give priority attention to African youth showed his ambition for a disruptive and innovative approach to France-Africa policy.
From this date on, France’s “new partnership with Africa”, Macron said, would be based on severing the old colonial ties that bind France and its 14 former African colonies.
“There no longer a French policy for Africa,” he declared. “There is a policy we may conduct, there are friends, there are people with whom we agree and others no. But above all, there is a continent that we need to look in the face.”
Macron’s new agenda
Macron’s relationship with Africa is like that of no other president of the French Fifth Republic.
While studying at France’s prestigious National School of Administration (ENA), Emmanuel Macron went to Abuja, Nigeria, for a six-month internship at the French Embassy.
“Born after independence and friends with prominent members of the African diaspora, Macron appeared as a legitimate president for a renewal of France’s relationship with Africa,” says Sina Schlimmer, research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
Alongside his diplomatic activities, the future French president embraced the country’s rich culture, and was spotted dancing to the music of Nigeria’s iconic artist Fela Kuti.
Even before the Ougadougou speech, Macron had created the Presidential Council for Africa, composed of African and French representatives from fields such as entrepreneurship, health, sustainable development, sport, and culture, to give him advice on general issues faced by the continent.
But Macron’s attempt to set a new agenda in the relationship between France and Africa was perhaps best illustrated by the 2021 edition of the annual Africa-France summit which, for the first time since its creation in 1973, did not invite any African political officials. Instead, entrepreneurs, artists, academics, and athletes from all over the continent were invited to Montpellier to explore “new perspectives on the relationship between Africa and France,” as Macron’s government described it.
Getting closer to prominent members of African civil society was also meant to change France’s reputation as a giver of bribes or corrupter of African political leaders.
For five years, Macron has also led multiple initiatives to re-open sensitive historical chapters of France’s history.
In the Ouagadougou speech, he quoted the country’s revolutionary leader President Thomas Sankara, who was assassinated in a 1987 coup, and promised to declassify secret French government documents concerning the killing. (At time of writing files had been sent to the Burkinabe government but had still not been made public.)
In 2021, he commissioned a report on “the memory of French colonisation and the war in Algeria” from French historian Benjamin Stora, after which he publicly apologised for the treatment of Algerians who fought alongside French troops in their country’s war of independence.
In the same vein, he set up a commission of experts to explore the role of France in the Rwanda genocide. Two months after, he asked Rwandans to forgive France in a speech at the genocide memorial in Kigali.
Can Macron change France’s image in Africa?
But despite his strong communication skills, Macron’s strategy to change France’s image in Africa has produced mixed results.
During his first five-year term, France remained the target of embittered African complaints and criticism.
Anti-French sentiments spread across Africa with demonstrations in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. In November 2021, a convoy of French troops deployed in West Africa in the fight against Islamist groups was repeatedly blockaded by protesters.
More recently, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Chad’s capital city N’Djamena to protest France’s involvement in the country, with reports of destruction to some French-linked businesses.
“The rejection of France is due to the longstanding paternalist and incoherent role the country has played in Africa, notably 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 think Emmanuel Maron does not take into account the actual depth of the anti-French sentiment, rooted in the colonial history and which, supported by social media, went beyond nationalist claims to become a pan-African movement,” he continues.
IFRI’s Schlimmer questions the extent to which those who have been invited to Macron’s summits are genuine represertatives of civil society.
“Members of the ‘civil society’ invited by the President during those various summits are part of an elite group as they are members of the African diaspora or have worked for few diplomatic institutions,” she says.
New term, new challenges
“Congratulations on your well-deserved re-election President Emmanuel Macron. This is a testament to your visionary leadership that seeks to unite and not divide […],” said President Paul Kagame of Rwanda in a tweet the day after Macron’s re-election on 24 April.
Kagame was not the only African president to acknowledge Macron’s second landslide victory over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, as Macky Sall, president of Senegal, Alassane Ouattara, president of Côte d’Ivoire, Ali Bongo Ondimba, president of Gabon, also commended his re-election.
“One of Macron’s biggest achievements in Africa is the establishment of close ties with his neoliberal counterpart Paul Kagame, after a successful reconciliation process with Rwanda,” says Laurent Duarte.
Macron’s shift towards English-speaking Africa will be decisive in the next five years. While visiting Nigeria in 2018, Macron strengthened links between the French and Nigerian private sectors with the creation of the France-Nigeria Investment Club. A similar private-sector driven initiative was led in Kenya, where France has not only been building bridges but also invested in the $1.5bn public-private partnership contract in East Africa for the 30-year concession of the Nairobi-Mau highway.
Macron’s progressive move toward English-speaking Africa will be accompanied by increasing investments in Africa’s private sector. Choose Africa, launched in 2018 as a branch of the AFD, the French Development Agency, has already committed $3bn to various African start-ups and MSMEs. More recently, the AFD has announced that $138m will be dedicated to African startups between 2022 and 2025 through the Digital Africa initiative, which is double the amount of the Group’s commitment to them over the 2018-2022 period.
Rivalry for influence in France’s former colonies
But as France expands to new African markets, its former colonies are becoming increasingly open to foreign influence. Emmanuel Macron’s main challenge ahead will be dealing with the arrival of new countries in what was considered France’s private preserve.
From 2015 to 2020, Russian exports to sub-Saharan countries have grown by 85%, mainly from oil and agricultural products. In Senegal, for instance, Russia took France’s place as the biggest source of wheat, accounting for more than 50% of Senegal’s wheat importation in 2020. The historical weight France once had in the region’s commercial balance is being challenged by the growing presence of Russia, China, and Turkey.
Foreign influence also touches on the security challenge in the Sahel region, which will be Macron’s most sensitive geopolitical issue for his next term.
The withdrawal of French troops from Mali, and the diplomatic tensions surrounding it, provide Russia with a chance to recover military influence through its mercenaries after a long absence on the continent following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
The war in Ukraine is putting pressure on West African countries to align themselves in a bipolar world. Most of them are likely to stay neutral in view of their strong economic and military ties with Russia.
In this context, France’s military commitment in the Sahel is changing, with an increased footprint in Niger and Côte d’Ivoire to ensure the security of coastal states.
“The Central African Republic and Mali were countries for which France was the only political partner, and they thus created a massive disruption by choosing Russia,” says Laurent Duarte. “The risk, however, is that all of Macron’s African policy is designed around the current tensions with Russia.”
Macron faces twofold disruption
Macron is facing the challenge of a twofold disruption: one that he chose, and one that has been imposed on him. On the one hand, the French president will pursue his communication strategy, getting closer to African entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and other members of the diaspora that share his idea of economic development.
His English language skills, which are like those of no former French president, coupled with his free market mindset, will accelerate the shift toward Anglophone Africa, with rumours of a first presidential trip to Tanzania or Zambia before the end of the year.
On the other hand, Macron must navigate rising competition among economic and military players in French-speaking Africa.
“African societies are also torn by these disruptions as they hold historical, personal, friendly, and linguistic relationships with France. I believe politics is intimacy. And Africa is an intimate topic for France,” says Duarte.