On February 14th and March 21st, the two front-runners in the French national election to be held in late April and early May of this year, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen (who currently poll at 24 and 19 percent respectively according to Le Point polls) paid visits to Algeria and Chad.
As Francois Hollande, the incumbent President of France, is not running this year, it may well be the case that the next President of France was hosted by one of these countries. But in their visits, they both signalled and then rapidly undermined promises of change to the current relationship between their country and the continent, especially its Francophone parts – a change that is long overdue. Essentially, both candidates proved just how much they do not understand the gross imbalance and asymmetry in the relationship, in which Africa is essentially a pawn, pacified by aid and a heavy military presence, while itself doling out resources and continued fealty.
France has a long history of unequal relations with the African continent; a set of relations which have a fascinating durability, considering their unfairness. From the onset of colonialism in Africa, France was there, carrying away bulky parts of the continent, including the island of Madagascar, as well as huge chunks of Central and West Africa. Reluctant to let go of its colonies on the continent, France was the last of the European powers to grant independence to an African possession – thus Djibouti managed to wrest its independence in 1977 (a whole year after Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak established Apple). The republic’s relations with Africa are usually referred to as “Francafrique,” a loaded term which describes the complicated, informal web of relationships Paris has maintained with its former African colonies and its support, sometimes in the form of military backing for politicians who favour French business interests – previous recipients of French favour include Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (and for a while Emperor when he was crowned in Napoleon-style ceremony in 1976), the exceedingly unpopular Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso who was overthrown in 2014 and Alassane Ouattara, the current President of Cote d’Ivoire whose political opponent, former president Laurent Gbagbo, after arrest by French forces, is currently under International Criminal Court prosecution – and to this day, French boots are on African soil, the latest estimate placing them at well over 10,000 in countries that include Djibouti in the east, Mauritania in the north, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south, as well as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in the west of the continent. Nowadays, these military campaigns are largely undertaken in former French colonies under the official reason of protecting national interests or to combat jihadist militancy and secure the stability of southern Europe.
“The [French] far right continues to promote the idea that if there are problems in France, it’s because of the foreigners, especially Africans,” a spokesperson for Chad’s opposition party, Laring Baou, said of Marine Le Pen who made a visit to his country last month. “I remember her father’s words: ‘I like Africans — but only in Africa’.” In her visit that included a meeting with President Idriss Deby, Front National party candidate Madame Le Pen pledged to break with the decades-old “Francafrique” and abolish the CFA franc currency policy that binds France and its former colonies on the continent. “I’ve come to condemn the policy of Francafrique that they’ve carried out. I have come to say I will break with this policy,” she said. This is of course nothing new. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy and incumbent Francois Hollande had also vowed to end the Francafrique policy, but both kept France deeply involved in African politics and security matters.
Her statements the following day to the Chadian National Assembly were already proof that she intended to continue this time-honoured and presidential habit of not keeping her word. Madame Le Pen, whose party is known for its nationalistic views and has been labelled by mainstream media as Islamophobic and xenophobic, categorically stated that if she won the election she would maintain her country’s military presence in the country as well as increase France’s aid to the continent from the current 0.37% of France’s national GDP to 0.7%; promising to hand it over more directly to the governments of Africa rather than through the EU or the United Nations, which is the current French practice. It’s questionable whether this kind of increase would actually take place if she won (France has its own internal citizens in need of this aid, who would probably receive first priority), but even if it did, the implication would essentially mean the continuation of the Franafrique policy which she had decried only a day before – and its being more bilateral, as she promised, would mean a more direct line of dependency from the capitals of Africa to Paris. Furthermore, she stated that she would continue the highly criticised and inefficient practice of handing the donations over to the government as opposed to civil society. A break in the policy of Francafrique as we have known it and a redesign of the relationship with France would require a rollback of the military presence and dealing with terrorism in more civic procedures such as poverty-alleviation through upward mobility (in fact, a recent study by the Institute of Security Studies on Chadian jihadi young men found that many join such groups due to lack of opportunity costs for doing so, and not because of an attraction to fundamentalism; see: https://issafrica.org/research/policy-brief/malis-young-jihadists-fuelled-by-faith-or-circumstance?), less conditional and politicised aid, and a relaxation of France’s and the EU’s subsidies on agriculture which have had a crowding-out effect on African agricultural producers who must also pay heavy tariffs and abide by quotas as a result of the common tariff. Though Eurosceptic (and in any case not likely to do anything to curb EU quotas and tariffs if she takes France out of the EU as she has promised) there is little reason to believe that as an adherent to an ill-defined “economic patriotism”, she would adhere a set of policies which would cut back France’s own agricultural sector to the benefit of African producers. And so aid and troops, which is what she has promised more of, would only mean more of the same; which is not what the relationship needs.
The other key candidate, current front-runner Emmanuel Macron, does not offer much hope either. If Marine Le Pen offers only a slight modification to the relationship, Monsieur Macron offers little else. As an adherent of the EU as it is, in which he intends to keep France should he win, his victory would mean the retention of the CFA franc (the currency used by 14 states on the continent) and its ties to the euro at a fixed exchange rate – with the peg guaranteed by the French Treasury. The EU’s own assessment of the currency, whose acronym had once stood for Colonies françaises d’Afrique (“French colonies of Africa”), noted that “benefits from economic integration within each of the two monetary unions of the CFA franc zone, and even more so between them, remained remarkably low.” Macron, however, has been silent on this question – but I suppose it is rendered mute and the answer needs no uttering. He does not seem to offer revision on other aspects of the relationship either, despite initial glimmers of hope that he would.
In a TV interview during his Algiers visit, the independent candidate said French actions in Algeria, which became independent in 1962 following a brutal eight-year war of independence which is estimated by the Algerian government to have cost about 1.5 million lives, were “genuinely barbaric, and constitute a part of our past that we have to confront by apologising.” He later on went to state that France’s actions there amounted to “crimes against humanity”; a statement which was greeted by some as a first step in France’s coming to grips with its colonial past. (In fact, Algerian political parties, and Algerians in general, have long denounced the refusal of the French authorities to recognise and apologize for the crimes committed by colonial France in Algeria.) But, to his great discredit, he later apologised following heat that the statement generated, including from fellow candidates. Republican candidate and current third-runner on the polls Francois Fillon, who served as France’s Prime Minister between 2007 and 2012, denounced what he termed “this hatred of our history, this perpetual repentance that is unworthy of a candidate for the presidency of the republic.” And Wallerand de Saint-Just, an official in Le Pen’s party, accused Macron of “shooting France in the back,” while Gerald Darmanin, an ally of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, tweeted the following: “Shame on Emmanuel Macron for insulting France while abroad.”
France has plenty of museums, but to this day the country does not have a single one dedicated to its colonial past. This is telling, and perhaps protest against Monsieur Macron should have been expected among the politicians (while president, Jacques Chirac once tried to make schools teach of colonialism having been positive for the Maghreb region), as well as the general population, of whom some 100 people took to the streets, shouting “Macron, treason!” Before winning the presidency himself, President Francois Hollande suggested it was time to turn the page on France’s Algerian colonial history, but he stopped short of offering the formal apology many in Algeria still want to hear because of the likely uproar it would have given rise to. By the way, France’s definition of “crimes against humanity”, which has been in its law since 2001, includes slavery, which was practiced under French rule in the French West Indies, Saint-Domingue, and Martinique amongst others.
It is clear, then, that among the front-runners, and within French society in general, very few are prepared to peel their blindness to that country’s past in the continent; a notion which can only mean that none among them are ready to be serious and appreciative of the present situation and therefore of the need for a mature revisit of the relations. For that reason, it is apparent that change in France’s problematic relations with Africa will have to come from developments in individual Francophone African countries than from the reform debate in Paris.