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President Macron’s Balancing Act at the Africa-France Summit

Analyses - 14 October 2021

The "Africa-France Summit" took place on October 8, 2021 in Montpellier (southern France) and was attended by nearly 3,000 participants. At the Summit, President Macron's balancing act on a number of issues central to the relationship with Africa became clear: between civil society and Heads of State, the past and the future, the relationship with the neighboring continent and French elections, and the Africa-France vs. Europe-Africa relationship. 

Civil society vs. Heads of State

The beginning of Macron's five-year presidential term was marked by his seminal speech to students in Ouagadougou, in November 2017. He declared: "there no longer is a French policy for Africa." Through this speech, he expressed his desire to place African youth at the center of the future of relations between France and Africa. Four years later, in Montpellier, the Africa-France Summit was organized with no African leaders present, for the first time since these summits began in 1973. An hour-long discussion ensued, during which Macron spoke with 11 young Africans and Franco-Africans selected by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. The French President insisted on the fact that this "New Africa-France Summit" was a real turning point and marked the end of the traditional France-Africa (Françafrique) summits between French and African Heads of State.

Although the Heads of State were not physically invited to Montpellier, they came up repeatedly in the discussions. The French President was criticized for cooperating with dictators, notably in Chad, Mali, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. He reminded the audience about his words condemning these various leaders’ antidemocratic actions, notably those of Alpha Condé in Guinea, towards whom he made harsh public remarks in a Jeune Afrique  interview, in November 2020. The President however chose not to talk about the fact that France sometimes needs to rely on stable leadership in certain African countries, at the cost of democratic ideals. This is notably the case in Chad, which France "absolutely needs for the success of the Barkhane operation" and where it is therefore "very difficult to disagree too openly" - this is the whole "dilemma of the French presence in the region" as Michel Duclos reminds us

The young people who spoke with Emmanuel Macron in Montpellier emphasized that they were looking for concrete solutions ("unlike the Heads of State you usually meet"). They went so far as to ask the President if he was ready to stop cooperating with African dictators and to consider civil society as a partner in the same way he does States. The President answered with the question of the criteria on which to define this civil society, and indicated that the real problem is an African youth who has limited access to positions of responsibility, even though 60% of Africans are under 24 years old. This begs the question, "how can the political class synchronize with African society?"

We hence see the fragile balance between non-interference while responding to the demands of civil societies. Isn’t there a paradox between the need for Africans to deal with their own governance problems without French interference - as emphasized by the 11 speakers ("we deal with our dictators ourselves, don't worry about our internal problems") - and a request to bypass the leaders in favor of civil society? This would amount to France choosing its foreign interlocutors. Would we envision a scenario in which the French President refused to discuss with Xi Jinping?

France has reduced its government-to-government investment projects in favor of civil society-led projects.

Emmanuel Macron insisted that in each of the countries mentioned, France has reduced its government-to-government investment projects in favor of civil society-led projects. He also announced the creation of an innovation fund for democracy in Africa, endowed with €30 million over three years and directed towards civil society, with independent governance composed of African experts to direct these funds.

It remains to be seen what form this fund, which was one of the recommendations formulated in the report submitted by Achille Mbembe to the President a few days before the Summit, will take in practice. 

The question of who to talk to is important when dealing with a number of central and rather thorny issues in the Africa-France relationship. These include the CFA currency and the French military presence in the Sahel. On these subjects, President Macron is confronted with contradictory demands from the African leaders on the one hand, and from the youth and civil society represented by the 11 young people on the other. Among the demands made by the latter was the transfer of the CFA foreign exchange reserves from Paris to the countries concerned. Emmanuel Macron assured them that this has been done. There are no longer any reserves in the French Treasury account, as convened with the announcements made in Abidjan alongside President Ouattara in December 2019. However, the guarantee instruments are still in place and the French President said he was ready to go further provided that the request is made to him by the involved African states, so that this is not perceived as an abandonment. This is precisely the kind of criticism that Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga had for France at the United Nations on September 25, regarding the end of the Barkhane operation announced in June. In contrast, the young people with whom he met in Montpellier called for a "gradual and definitive" withdrawal of French military bases on the continent. Emmanuel Macron was quick to point out that France had intervened in Mali in 2013 at the request of the Malian authorities.

A difficult balance between the past and the future

Another delicate balance inherent to the bilateral Africa-France relationship is between the past and the future, to which Emmanuel Macron has given particular attention since the beginning of his presidency. He played the African and French youth card as early as the Ouagadougou speech, declaring: "I, like you, come from a generation that has never known Africa as a colonized continent." He has since wished to recenter the relationship with Africa on positive developments, cooperation, and the future. These relate to the six areas that the discussions held in the morning of October 8 focused on: entrepreneurship and innovation; culture, heritage and cooperation; sport; cultural and creative industries; civic engagement and democracy; higher education, research and innovation. A number of projects based on these themes have been launched recently, notably through the French Development Agency (AFD). Various funds and initiatives were announced during the summit. These included the launch of a €10 million fund to support African digital startups (through the Digital Africa initiative), another fund aimed at helping African museums host international works of art, and a support program for African sports academies.

Nevertheless, the afternoon plenary session on October 8, led by 11 young Africans and Franco-Africans, focused on the political aspects of the Africa-France relationship, and particularly on its past. It is clear to Macron that he cannot wipe the slate clean. In response to a young person asking him to "wash the very dirty pot"’ that is the relationship between France and Africa, the President replied that there will always be stains, that it is necessary to own up to the past and its wounds. But when another speaker invited him to apologize in the name of France for its colonial past, Macron refused. He believes it would be too easy an answer to turn a page that cannot be turned. According to him, it is more appropriate to engage in a work of recognition, a common work on memory, in order to document history and later teach it to future generations. 

This is what he has done during his five-year term concerning Algeria, through the Stora report submitted to the Elysée in January, and concerning Rwanda, on the basis of a report submitted last March and during a trip in May 2021 to Kigali. He also took advantage of the Montpellier Summit to announce the restitution of 26 works of art to Benin, currently held at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, in line with the process of returning cultural works to their country of origin initiated during his speech in Ouagadougou. 

It is more appropriate to engage in a work of recognition, a common work on memory, in order to document history and later teach it to future generations. 

This forced return to the past puts a brake on another aspect of the President's ambition for France’s relationship with Africa: rapprochement with non-French speaking African countries. This is evidenced by visits to Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa, where Macron was in November 2017, July 2018, March 2019, and May 2021, respectively. While the youth delegation that exchanged with President Macron on October 8 included one English speaker (from a total of 11) from Kenya, it was primarily a discussion where Francophone Africa was "holding France accountable", as some noted, and such an event would likely not have taken place in other former colonial countries.

The diaspora: between relations with Africa and electoral stakes

President Macron hoped to make the so-called diaspora, i.e. the nearly 7 million French people (of 1st or 2nd generation) whose lives are linked to Africa, the cornerstone of the relationship with the continent. This is why he set up the Presidential Council for Africa as soon as he came to power, made up of personalities from civil society and for the most part from the diaspora, whose goal is to feed the President's African policy. The Montpellier Summit (a city where the university hosts a chair of African diasporas) was a similar part of this line of action, highlighting "France's share of Africanness".  

On the one hand, France is banking on its comparative advantage over its Russian and Turkish competitors, for instance, whose history is not as intertwined with that of the African continent. The President has for instance committed to working more on the recognition of the key financial role played by this diaspora, by building a framework for private financing flows with Africa, alongside the AFD and the banking systems.

But on the other hand, it also responds to French electoral issues, as Antoine Glaser and Pascal Airault have demonstrated in their book published in April, Le piège africain de Macron (Macron’s Africa Trap). This is even more the case given the current pre-electoral period. Emmanuel Macron, likely to run for office a second time, defies another likely candidate, far-Right Eric Zemmour when he denounces people "who think that history can be changed, falsified, that universal values can be relativized, including in our own country, in the French debate". The young Franco-Africans present on stage did not miss the opportunity to press him about the lack of visible diaspora among ambassadors, public media CEOs, or directors of theaters and museums. With his French-Cape Verdean Minister Delegate Elisabeth Moreno at his side - whom he recalled had joined the government following her intervention at a meeting of the diasporas organized in 2018 with the President of Ghana -, he conceded the long way to go and took up Achille Mbembe's proposal for a House of African Worlds and Diasporas to house "the African part of French genius."


Finally, an important aspect of the renewed relationship that the French President wants with Africa is his desire to increase interactions between the continent and Europe as a whole. This has been manifested in the area of security, through the creation of the Takuba Task Force in the Sahel, bringing together European forces. The question arises, however, as to how this continent-to-continent relationship could exist alongside France's particular relationship with Africa - or at least with part of it. Although the Elysée invited representatives of Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen and of European Council President Charles Michel to Montpellier, there was no mention of Europe in the discussions. France announced its intention to organize a Europe-Africa Summit during its presidency of the EU Council. IWe would need to wait until February 2022 to have concrete answers on this plan. 

It appears at the end of the Montpellier Summit that if Emmanuel Macron, fond of this type of exercise, was able to establish a good contact with these 11 young people selected, they were not there to pat the French President on the back. They insisted that this summit was a starting point for a new relationship, and that it will be up to the Africans themselves to reinvent it. 



Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP


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