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President Macron’s Two Africa Policies

ARTICLES - 14 June 2021

When Emmanuel Macron took up residence in the French presidential palace after his election, he had big ideas on Africa. 

He laid them out clearly during his Ouagadougou speech in November 2017: to relegate the French-speaking "backyard" to the past ("Africa has 54 countries"); to focus on youth and therefore on education; to tackle certain psychological wounds linked to colonial (Algeria) and post-colonial (Rwanda) history; to define Europe and France’s place on the continent’s path to rapid growth over the coming decades.

The President also understood from the outset that a large number of the "global challenges" facing the planet are concentrated in Africa, in particular climate change, demographics, terrorism, development and health. Furthermore, he made the choice - again from the outset - to maintain France’s military engagements in the Sahel and more generally to assume a certain continuity with regard to French-speaking Africa. It is factitious, of course, to speak of "two African policies" - after all, in the President’s mind, these make up a coherent strategy. Nevertheless, this duality is a helpful lens through which to begin assessing Macron’s approach to the African continent.

A shift toward a "global Africa"

Let us start with the "first policy": the attempt to reorient France toward a "globalized" Africa. This policy has had some notable successes, as became evident in a series of events that took place in May.

The first was the Paris Conference on Sudan on May 17, at which France committed to a bridge loan of $1.5 billion to consolidate the country’s political transition. Most remarkable is that this appeared to be the catalyst for efforts by the international community on an issue that had not been part of its sphere of influence thus far.

The following day, also in Paris, the Summit on the Financing of African Economies demonstrated France’s ability to use its weight in the multilateral system to serve Africa’s interests.

The finance summit on May 18 opened up perspectives on African debt, notably through a forthcoming cash injection from the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights reserve - "so that $33 billion becomes $100 billion", said the President - as well as on the vaccination campaigns of African countries. 

The attempt to reorient France toward a "globalized" Africa has had some notable successes. 

Several heads of state from non-French-speaking African nations invited by the President (South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria), as well as the IMF’s Managing Director traveled to Paris. One of China’s four vice-premiers, Han Zheng, and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen participated by videoconference. The obvious challenge is to prevent the Covid-19 crisis from worsening the gap between African and developed economies.

The President’s visit to Rwanda a few days later led to an important, and perhaps historic, outcome, namely the normalization of relations between Paris and Kigali after France’s recognition of the "damning responsibility" it bears for the Rwandan genocide of 1994. We know that the President relied on the report of the official commission on the Rwandan genocide, which was chaired by historian Vincent Duclert and submitted to the government on March 26. 

In his speech at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the President found the right words - "only those who got through the night can perhaps forgive, and in doing so, give us the gift of forgiveness" - without resorting to repentance. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose star has faded in the Anglo-Saxon world, seems willing to enter into a phase of reconciliation, at least for the time being. This is certainly a positive development for Macron’s desire to unlock one of the psychological traumas weighing on Franco-African relations. So is the Stora report on France’s colonial past in Algeria, submitted to the government on January 21, even if, unlike President Kagame, the Algerian authorities have not expressed satisfaction.

Over the past few years, President Macron has taken similar measures to address the sensitive elements of African public opinion. He has initiated the dismantling of the West African CFA franc, though he is met with reluctance on the part of most of the African heads of state concerned. He has entrusted Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe, one of the leading African intellectuals and co-founder of the Ateliers de la pensée de Dakar ("Dakar thought workshops"), with the organization of the "civil societies" Africa-France Summit set to be held in Montpellier in November. He has also taken the first steps toward the restitution of African cultural heritage to their countries of origin. 

After Kigali, President Macron went to Pretoria. He shares President Cyril Ramaphosa’s objective of rapidly developing South Africa’s vaccine production capacity. Though he initially showed reserve, Macron had by this point changed his position on the lifting of vaccine patents such as unexpectedly proposed by President Biden.

All in all, the President of the Republic can be considered to have scored points in his strategy to "change the way Africa looks at France", as he puts it, and to broaden the framework of France’s own approach to Africa. The first of his "two African policies" seems to be bearing fruit. We can wonder, though, whether he has truly escaped the shadow of what is known as "Françafrique", that special sphere of French influence over its former colonies. The situation in the Sahel is particularly problematic in this respect.

We can wonder whether President Macron has truly escaped the shadow of what is known as "Françafrique".

The shadow of Françafrique 

Here too, a sequence of recent events provides some answers. The Nouakchott Summit in February 2021 was conceived as a follow-up to the Pau Summit held in January 2020, the latter of which was notable for resulting in the deployment of 600 additional soldiers in Operation Barkhane, the French military intervention in Mali (5,000 troops).

It was expected that the President would announce the withdrawal of these 600 additional troops at the Nouakchott Summit. It was also expected that Macron would state an intention to revise his country’s posture in the Sahel, as it is generally accepted that France’s presence cannot continue at its current level and in its current form. Neither of these expectations came to pass, confirming that alongside an ambitious and innovative Macron vis-à-vis a "global Africa", there is also a more old-school, cautious and realist Macron in the relationship with West and Central Africa - that of the "second African policy".

On this front, the French President has had to accept Alassane Ouattara’s decision to stand for re-election in Ivory Coast after he had pledged to retire from political life. Furthermore, it is likely that France will not be able to oppose the apparently inevitable dynastic successions of power in Cameroon or Congo-Brazzaville.

Yet these woes come from the very heart of France’s strategy in the Sahel. First, after President Idriss Déby of Chad died under very suspicious circumstances on April 19, 2021, Macron was the only Western head of state to attend the long-standing French ally’s funeral. This was a courageous move, but one that illustrates the dilemmas of the French presence in the region: France absolutely needs the Chadian army for the success of Operation Barkhane. It is therefore very difficult for France to disagree too strongly - Macron did so, but after initially appearing to show that he could live with it - with the purely dynastic succession of power that has commenced in Chad.

Another setback was Mali’s "coup d’état within a coup d’état" on May 24-25, leading to an even more direct accession to the presidency by Colonel Assimi Goïta, who had ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta a few months earlier.

In an initial stage, joint operations between French and Malian forces have been suspended. 
For Paris, the situation comes with many risks, one of which is that the military in power in Bamako will enter into negotiations with some of the jihadist groups that have killed French soldiers - and whose neutralization is the raison d’être of France’s military engagement in the region. Another risk would be endorsing a regime devoid of any legitimacy. A third risk - which is in fact already a reality - is that France’s lack of popularity in the Sahel increases and that the French intervention continues to be seen in public opinion as a pretext for covering up unspoken interests through complicity with local authoritarian regimes.

It’s probably with all these considerations in mind that on June 11, Macron took the extraordinary decision to declare an end to Operation Barkhane.

The events of the last few days highlight the presence of Russia and Turkey, which are quick to exploit any setbacks for France in the region.

Make no mistake: French troops will stay, but in reduced numbers, with the only purpose of combating jihadists and in a new technical configuration (special forces, drones, aerial operations and so on). By 2023 - not an immediate horizon - the French military in the Sahel should be no more than 2. 500 (versus 5.600 currently). Details have to be worked out with French allies in Europe and the United States. All this amounts to the beginning of slow and controlled disengagement. 

Simultaneously, in the background, the events of the last few days highlight the presence of Russia and Turkey, which are quick to exploit any setbacks for France in the region. More generally, there is now doubt about the extent of political Islam’s hold over a massive geographical area.

Outline of an assessment 

Given all these developments, what can be made of Macron’s Africa strategy? The articulation between the "two policies" described above could provide a basis for analysis as we approach the end of the current presidential term. In particular, we can imagine that:

  • a series of setbacks in the Sahel does not only end up forcing France to retreat in bad conditions (the scenario of a "French-style Afghanistan") but also undermines the gains obtained in France’s repositioning toward a "global Africa";
  • conversely, successes in Macron’s "first African policy" - notably through a real change in France’s image in the region - helps him to manage the necessary evolution of the French approach to the Sahel.

In a different vein, a sort of consensus is emerging: the President’s strategy has not yet succeeded in reversing the apprehension of French companies - apart from a few traditional players - to seize the opportunities of African economies. In the interview he gave to Antoine Glaser and Pascal Airault for their book Le piège africain de Macron ("Macron’s Africa trap"), the President agrees with this observation. Yet the French business community has a good hand to play in the particularly buoyant sectors of agriculture and cities in Africa today. Finally, to what extent has the creation of a "Europe-Africa axis", which should ultimately be the culmination of the President’s strategy, progressed? We shall find out during the French presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022.

 

 

Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

 

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