Macron’s Africa reset struggles to convince – POLITICO
Paul Taylor is editor of POLITICO.
PARIS — The greater the humiliation, the more grandiloquent the revival.
After a year that has seen French forces conduct counter-insurgency operations against jihadist rebels driven out of Mali and Burkina Faso by military coups, anti-colonialist street protests, Russian disinformation and mercenaries, President Emmanuel Macron has announced a fundamental overhaul of France’s African strategy.
“Humility”, “partnership” and “investment” are now the key words of a reset that Macron outlined in a speech he gave before embarking on his 18th trip to Africa in just eight years.
Many Africans were understandably skeptical as the French president took his new doctrine on tour to Gabon, Angola, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – an eclectic mix of former French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies that have great economic potential, and are strongly courted by Russia and China as well as by Europe.
“The days of Francafrique are well and truly over,” insisted Macron in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. He was not the first president to promise an end to postcolonial manipulation of African politics, with crony ties between the French elite and longtime African autocrats.
The French leader’s announcement of a radical change in Franco-African relations was strangely similar to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s proclamation of a Zeitenwende — a historic turning point in Berlin’s policy towards Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We have come to the end of a cycle in the history of France in which military issues had preeminence in Africa,” said Macron, the first French president born after the end of colonial rule. From now on, “there will no longer be military bases as such”, but “new military partnerships” with African allies, and French forces on the continent will focus on training local troops.
In a conscious effort to shed the cloak of paternalism and hard security, Macron built his four-day trip around the themes of saving African forests, developing agriculture, investing in African businesses and supporting the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. He also went clubbing in Kinshasa, beer in hand, with Congolese singer Fally Ipupa.
He avoided France’s traditional backyard in West Africa, where Paris’s counterinsurgency policy suffered its deepest setbacks.
“Our destiny is linked to the African continent. If we are able to seize this chance, we have the opportunity to anchor ourselves on the continent, which will increasingly be one of the youngest and most dynamic economic markets in the world, and one of the major of global growth in the decades to come. come,” Macron said.
He made a virtue of necessity, to say the least.
By reducing its military footprint without abandoning its key positions in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Djibouti, France hopes to avoid further forced withdrawals from strategic corners of the continent. Then, referring to the Russian Wagner mercenaries who supplanted French forces in Mali and the Central African Republic, Macron said he was sure Africans would soon miss the presence of the paramilitary group.
But small crowds of anti-French protesters in Libreville and Kinshasa have been a reminder of France’s tarnished image among many young Africans, as well as accusations of political interference that are hampering Macron’s bid for a fresh start.
In Gabon, protesters accused the French leader of aiding veteran President Ali Bongo’s re-election campaign – a charge he felt compelled to deny. And in the DRC, he faced both public criticism from President Felix Tshisekedi, as well as protests from opposition activists.
If you are in France, in Africa, you simply cannot win. No one will take your professions of good faith, political neutrality, partnership and brotherly love at face value.
Macron was arguably the most progressive French president when it came to Africa, officially acknowledging the mistreatment of Algerians by colonial France, and in search of an ever elusive reconciliation. He apologized to Rwanda for his country’s role in the failure to prevent the 1994 genocide by Hutu militias against ethnic Tutsis. He also created a commission to investigate the colonial massacres in Cameroon.
Macron has reached out to young people, civil society and start-ups, sometimes over the heads of African governments. He agreed to scrap the CFA franc – the eight-nation West African currency linked to France – to be replaced by the Eco in 2027. He is the first French leader to also return cultural treasures to Africa, by sending a collection of statues to Benin in what is likely to set a precedent.
Yet, if they make the blood of French nationalists boil, such gestures are too little, too late for many Africans.
France would probably be better advised to channel its efforts instead under the more politically palatable banner of the European Union, which is building a comprehensive partnership with the African Union – the key principles of which were defined at a summit in Brussels in February. 2022.
Unfortunately, however, this budding relationship was overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which monopolized the political and financial attention of the EU.
Africans see clearly how the bloc – including France – has poured billions of euros in military and financial aid into Ukraine, while support for African peace and security efforts has been far more limited. They also see how Ukraine gained EU candidate status and was at the center of every summit, while Africa had to struggle to get even belated aid for the purchase of vaccines against COVID-19.
Additionally, the war in Ukraine has aggravated food insecurity and squeezed energy prices on the continent.. For many Africans, Europe seems more concerned with blaming Russia than helping.
Macron’s African reset is in many ways a halfway house – he admitted as much in his big speech. “We are held accountable for the past without having been fully convinced of the shape of our common future,” he said.
The decision to rename the African bases as joint training companies would have been in itself a compromise between advisers who were opposed to giving an extra inch to France’s adversaries, and others who wanted to close most outposts and refocus the armed forces on preparing for a possible high-intensity war in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
While 61% of voters think France should stay in Africa because of its economic and security interests – as well as to help prevent mass migration to Europe – an Odoxa poll for Le Figaro showed that a majority similar is pessimistic about Franco-African ties, and doubts Macron’s ability to build a new relationship.
This may not be the last Franco-African reset.