Macron seeks to turn page on ‘Francafrique’
President Emmanuel Macron has promised a new start in France’s relations with its former colonies in Africa, promising that Paris would no longer “lecture” or seek to intervene.
Here are the issues in 4 questions:
What are France’s Africa ties?
France was a colonial power which held sway over a vast swathe of territory in West Africa that began during the scramble for territory by European powers from the mid-19th century. The area stretched from the modern-day nations of Mauritania and Mali in the north to Ivory Coast and Benin on the Gulf of Guinea and the landlocked Central African Republic.
By 1960, the former colonial territories had emerged as independent countries but French influence remained deeply entrenched and its interventionist approach became known pejoratively as its “Francafrique policy”.
Successive French leaders built close ties to the mostly authoritarian strongmen who took over in the post-independence era, while French companies took leading roles in strategic sectors, particularly oil and mining.
Does Macron want to end this?
Speaking to students in Burkina Faso’s capital, he avoided mention of “Francafrique” but assured them: “I haven’t come here to tell you what is France’s African policy because there no longer is one.”
His advisors have stressed that he is promoting the idea of a “partnership of equals” between France and Africa and in his speech, he promised France would “stop lecturing” others. As such, it is nothing new, said Laurent Bigot, a former diplomat specialising in West Africa, who underlined how France’s grip on the region has slipped progressively since the 1960s. “He’s the third president who has announced the end of Francafrique,” he told AFP. “He’s done the same thing as his two predecessors with a major African trip at the start of his mandate.”
But for Antoine Glaser, another Africa expert and former editor of a newsletter about the continent, Macron “needs to take into account France’s loss of influence in Africa”, particularly in the face of competition from China. “Because other than the Sahara region, France doesn’t count for much,” he explained.
Can Macron reset relations?
Echoing his predecessors, Macron appealed to the youth of Burkina Faso to move on from the crimes of colonialism, insisting it was “a past which has to pass.” During a lively question-and-answer session with the students that broke with a tradition of staid, scripted exchanges with heads of state, a relaxed Macron stressed the generational change he represents as France’s youngest leader since Napoleon. “I am from a generation that hails Nelson Mandela’s victory over apartheid as one of its fondest political memories. That’s the history of our generation,” he told the gathering.
Former diplomat Bigot says Macron channelled former US president Barack Obama’s approach of “appealing to African civil society” and addressing young people directly. “That’s the real change,” he said. “He is saying to young people in Africa: ‘I’m young, I’m like you, born after colonisation, I’m not going to get stuck with the old African heads of state, the autocrats who were often co-opted by France’.”
But the 39-year-old Frenchman faces scepticism too: comments in July when he spoke of African women having “seven or eight children” and called population growth on the continent a “civilisational” problem offended many people. On Tuesday, he expressed regret over the “civilisational” remark while questioning whether African women were really free to choose how many children they had.
While those remarks hit the spot, he nearly sparked a diplomatic incident with his Burkinabe counterpart Roch Marc Christian Kabore by telling students to direct their complaints about electricity supplies to their own president. When Kabore suddenly left the room, Macron continued joking that he had gone to fix the air conditioning.
What are France’s Africa priorities?
France maintains a major military presence in the region and is the lead partner in a multi-national force fighting jihadists on the fringes of the Sahara.
In 2013, then president Francois Hollande sent troops to Mali to defend the country against Islamist extremists, two years after France spearheaded a NATO-led bombing campaign against late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi. Since 2015, controlling migration from Africa has also emerged as a key policy focus which features heavily at a summit of European Union and African Union leaders on Wednesday and Thursday.
Macron faced criticism from some students on Tuesday for EU efforts to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean from Libya, where they face detention in squalid camps, torture, rape and even being sold into slavery.
France also cited economic development and giving girls access to education among its priorities in Africa.