France and Africa: Towards a New Model of Relations?

In recent decades, French foreign policy in Africa has been preoccupied with a jump-start of relations with the African nations, marked by a gradual curtailment of the Françafrique, a concept that provided for a direct military and political intervention in affairs of the French-speaking nations on the continent. France is now in search for a more balanced framework for interaction with the countries in the region.

Jacques Chirac was the first to voice the need to recalibrate these relations, with his sentiments echoed to varying degrees by each of his successors, whose proclamations were always coupled with certain symbolic gestures and initiatives. Emmanuel Macron is no exception here, as was demonstrated by his appearance at the latest Africa–France Summit in Montpellier on October 8, 2021. Once again, the event proved that Paris is trying to move beyond the outdated African strategy and diversify this policy case, both in terms of partners and in the scope of topics on the agenda.

The Context of the Summit

The key events in Macron’s African policy since 2017, which provided the background for the Summit, are a mixed bag when it comes to reinvigorating the dialogue between France and Africa, with a more or less equal number of hits and misses.

On the one hand, early into his tenure, the incumbent French leader made a number of statements, indicating that France would be willing to rethink all dimensions of its relations with Africa in a post-colonial fashion. Speaking at the University of Ouagadougou in November 2017, Macron explained that “there no longer is a French policy for Africa” in the older sense of the term. Instead of a network of clientelist ties with the old, mainly French-speaking elites, even-handed ties with all the 54 countries of the continent need to be fostered.

The President stressed that he belonged to a modern generation of politicians, who launched their careers in the aftermath of the colonial period in Africa and who never denied the crimes of European colonialists. E. Macron suggested that Europeans and Africans are “a generation whose destinies are interwoven”, meaning that there is no other option but move together along the path of harmonious and mutually complementary development. At the same venue, the President called for new channels of communication between the Hexagon and the African nations, implying that cooperation should develop at the grassroot level between small and medium-sized enterprises, educational centres, museums, sports associations; if not through government offices and large corporations, something typical of the Françafrique. Macron used a similar logic at the Summit of the International Organisation of the Francophonie in Yerevan, adding that the heart of the French-speaking world is “neither to the right nor to the left of the Seine, but undoubtedly in the basin of the Congo river”, since the population of African countries is rapidly growing, as is their potential for development.

Expanding on this thinking, a new policy of historical memory has gained traction. It places emphasis on returning once exported cultural property to Africa as well as on resolving the most sensitive issues of the common past. For example, a report was published in 2018, authored by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, providing a detailed list of items that could be donated to Africa from the funds of French museums. Some of the report’s recommendations were acted upon: during his trip to Senegal, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe brought an antique sabre to a meeting with the local government a year later while a law on the restitution of cultural artifacts was passed in 2020. Besides, in early 2021, the historian Benjamin Stora submitted a report to the President focusing on the Algerian War, outlining a number of steps towards mutual rapprochement. These were ranging from the construction of monuments to granting scholarships to support research into the 1954–1962 war. The trend was also stimulated by Macron’s recent recognition that France bears political responsibility for doing not enough to prevent the genocide in Rwanda.

Also important was that the Élysée Palace agreed to the prospective abolishment of the CFA franc, a common name for the two currencies used in West and Central Africa a fixed exchange rate to the euro, signalling France’s readiness to give up on this financial lever over its former colonies. The French government’s capabilities in the two sub-regions will significantly be reduced with the introduction of the new currency, the Eco. However, Paris will still guarantee the new currency’s convertibility into euro, however, withdrawing its representatives from the main financial institutions in the sub-regions (such as the Central Bank of West African States) and rescinding the requirement to keep over a half of these countries’ financial reserves in the Banque de France. In the future, this may give an additional impetus to regional integration, which was largely hampered by a consistently overvalued CFA franc.

Something that also deserves our attention here is that France has made numerous attempts to foster business cooperation with African nations. One such example is the Choose Africa initiative under the French Development Agency, launched in 2019 to provide support for 10,000 small businesses and entrepreneurs to the tune of 2.5 billion euro. That same year, during his tour of the Horn of Africa, where French is not widely spoken, Macron announced that Paris would be expanding ties with some of its non-traditional partners—notably, with Ethiopia (in the fields of military equipment, aviation and archaeology) and with Kenya (in infrastructure, energy, and the automotive industry)[1].

Finally, some of the initiatives proposed by Macron during his four years in power have, directly or indirectly, to do with Africa. In 2019–2021, he repeatedly talked about a “Paris Consensus”, labelling it as a new set of rules for the global economy to replace the well-known “Washington Consensus.” The President has not yet elaborated on the main parameters of the concept; still, he stressed that it should take a more flexible approach to addressing the imbalances between the North and South and, primarily, the needs of Africa. Macron was one of the first leaders globally to argue that a temporary moratorium on African debt should be introduced. Besides, he endorsed the global ACT-A project to expand access of developing countries to COVID-19 vaccines. Paris hosted the International Conference to Support the Sudanese Transition in May 2021 and brought its African partners into various ad hoc coalitions—the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, the Tropical Forest Alliance, the Alliance for Multilateralism, and others.

On the other hand, certain elements of France’s current policy in Africa have left a distinctly less favourable impression than as it meets the eye, especially among the Africans. This mainly has to do with security issues: in the Sahel, Paris has been running its Operation Barkhane to fight terrorism since 2014, and no victory seems to be in sight for the French troops and their allies. Having “inherited” the operation from François Hollande, Macron tried to follow the “three Ds” (Défense, Diplomatie, Développement), a tactics that soon faltered in practice. While occasionally announcing liquidations of terrorist leaders, the forces France has at its disposal in the sub-region are insufficient to assume full control of the vast expanses of the Sahel, easily permeable from both north and south [2]. Finally, the joint contingent of five countries has so far proven rather ineffective[3].

Mustering all its diplomatic charm, France turned for help to its European partners, with no one proving ready to send a large force to the area, only agreeing to deploy special forces instead (such as the 2020 Takuba Task Force). Besides, the various projects to develop the Sahel funded by France, the EU and international organizations have not produced any real results yet. They have either duplicated what existed before or failed to penetrate the clan structure of local societies. As a result, French military presence is increasingly seen in a negative light, while the Sahel countries have started to explore other options for cooperation, reaching out to alternative security providers [4]—primarily, Russia—in the form of businesses, military instructors and PMCs.

This evidently shook France’s Quai d’Orsay, which recently threatened to abandon the Sahel altogether. This would never have happened were the Françafrique logic really a thing of the past, as Paris declared. The current French leadership believes that the Operation Barkhane cannot go on forever, with Macron having announced this summer that it would be coming to a close. However, Paris wants to prevent competitors from filling the vacuum that it will leave.

The situation in the Sahel is not the only challenge exposing the ambivalence of France’s recalibrated African policy. The Élysée Palace has been inconsistent in its stances on the domestic situation in various African countries. In some cases, Paris prefers to act in the spirit of the Françafrique: Vasily Filippov, for one, argues the French forces in Gabon were instrumental to preventing a coup d’état in early 2019. Besides, Paris’ silence regarding the third-term re-election of Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire (who was originally installed in power with a certain support from France) after receiving 95 per cent of the vote amid a violent suppression of the opposition was very much in line with France’s earlier policy case in Africa. Later, following the death of President Idriss Déby of Chad, France moved to establish contacts with the military led by his son, who would go on to assume the role of interim president.

Meanwhile, Macron called for fair and legitimate elections in Mali following successive coups in the country in 2020 and 2021. In the run-up to the Africa–France Summit in Montpellier, the media launched an attack on the president for his stance on Algeria as he criticized the ruling “military-political system,” accusing it, among other things, of a deliberate politicization of the historical memory. Another classic example of how French policy in Africa oscillates between democratic values and pragmatic interests is its relationship with the Egypt: Macron may, on occasion, voice concerns about human rights violations in the country (albeit in a very measured way), while still concluding mutually beneficial agreements, including military and technical contracts.

Key Takeaways from the Meeting

Perhaps to redress the effects of this ambivalence, the French took the unusual step of not inviting heads of state and government to the summit in Montpellier (with the exception of Emmanuel Macron himself), aiming instead for a broader representation of the civil society, business and academia. The rationale behind this, as was explained by Benoit Verdeaux, Secretary-General of the Summit, was to cater for the main target audience. It appears that the summit was geared towards future leaders rather than the current elites—and it was notably the African youth whom the President of the Republic addressed at the University of Ouagadougou four years ago. The summit was, therefore, “therapeutic” in that its purpose was to establish contacts with the new generation of Africans, overcoming mutual stereotypes and improving the perception of France across the continent.

It strikes the attention that the Summit’s participants were not limited to Africa’s Francophone countries, proving once again that Paris wants to go beyond its traditional stomping grounds. An emphasis on a fostered cooperation with the non-Francophone Africa looks all the more understandable as it includes the continent’s larger economieséSouth Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia—where the historical memory of France’s presence is less important than in the countries that were once part of the French Empire.

The specific nature of the Summit meant that no major political decisions were made. Instead, the Summit saw the announcement of a new series of steps towards the continent’s countries, chief among which were:

-Establishing a fund to support African democracy, with a 30-million-euro budget for the next three years. Such a relatively meagre sum suggests that the money will not be spent on sponsoring African leaders or local political parties—it will rather be spent on projects run by non-profit human rights organizations.

-Breathing new life into the Digital Africa initiative, which was launched back in 2018 to support African start-ups and small entrepreneurs. Initially, 65 million euro was allocated for the initiative; however, as press reports suggest, the money never got past bureaucratic obstacles. An announcement was made on the sidelines of the Montpellier summit that the French Development Agency would be taking the initiative under a closer supervision, adding another 130 million to its budget until 2025.

-Intending to open a “House of African Worlds and Diasporas” in the heart of Paris, meant as a creative space for exhibitions, tours, educational programmes, etc. The House will serve as a single platform for Africa’s presence in France and a place to network on a multilateral basis. E. Macron also spoke in favour of a more active involvement of African diasporas in the staff of French state bodies, including the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. As the Institut Montaigne expert Mahaut de Fougières noted, the Macron’s idea went against the statements of Eric Zemmour, a journalist and a likely 2022 presidential hopeful, who is in favour of the conservative project for the French nation, going on to call for a Francization of the names of African migrants.

These are just some of the announcements contained in the main document that set the tone for the Summit: a special report on the contemporary French–African relations was prepared on behalf of E. Macron by the famous post-colonial theorist Achille Mbembe. Having interviewed some 3,500 people (mainly of the younger generation), Mbembe concluded that there is a strong demand for self-sufficiency in the African countries of today. What this means, as Emmanuel Macron also notes, is that the relations between Europe and Africa should be re-fashioned along the lines of equality. Africa stands on the verge of a comprehensive economic, social and geopolitical transformation, with the coronavirus crisis only highlighting the need for such a change.

The incumbent African elites do not share these sentiments, though, having grown quite accustomed to their own irremovability while throwing a spanner in the attempts to effect some changes. One solution, according to Mbembe, would be to carry out a revolution “in their heads,” where new generations of Africans would decide to take their fate into their own hands. This would require an extensive work at the grassroot level that would include the most pressing issues of the day, ranging from digital technologies and climate change to migration. Another prerequisite is a revision of the French narrative to entail a shift from “assistance for development” to investments and partnership.

Judging by the recent summit and the steps already taken by Macron with regard to Africa, it would seem that the French leadership agrees with this. Compared to the times of the Françafrique, reorienting the strategy towards non-state actors is an unconventional approach to say the least. If implemented consistently, it could theoretically improve France’s image in Africa over the next 10 to 15 years. What is more, looking at the cost of the initiatives mentioned above, France could save money that would previously go towards supporting the regimes in power. At the same time, this strategy does not guarantee that the younger generations now supported by France will not reorient themselves to other players at some point in the future, as the competition (including China, Turkey or Russia) is stepping up their activities in Africa. Cultivating contacts with the civil society “over the head” of the local elites may provoke anger, which would lead to a slowdown of the French initiatives on the ground.

It is also unlikely that France’s support for small start-ups in Africa will provide a quick solution to the problem of the country’s shrinking economic presence on the continent, which may have grown over the past 20 years in absolute terms (from $13 billion to $28 billion in exports), though falling in relative terms (from 12 per cent to 7 per cent of the market share).

In turn, African nations are faced with the task of not only improving the conditions for smaller businesses but also implementing large-scale infrastructure projects. This is something that China tends to focus on, and this will also be on the agenda at the Second Russia–Africa Summit to be held in 2022. The biggest problem, however, is that none of the approaches employed by French diplomacy can compensate for the failures in the military and political sphere. It is precisely here that France must be successful to sustain its authority in the eyes of African nations. It would thus be logical to assume that the next President of France (or Emmanuel Macron should he be re-elected) will still face the task of balancing the country’s African policy case so that it does not appear to exclusively favour either Track I or Track II diplomacy.

  1. Vasily Filippov, “E. Macron’s Tour in the Countries of the African Horn,” Asia & Africa Today, no.1 (2020): 10–16.
  2. As of September 2021, the French contingent in Sahel includes 5100 troops, 900 ground vehicles, between 5 and 8 transport aircraft, 20 helicopters, 7 fighter jets and 6 unmanned aerial vehicles.
  3. France’s five partners in the operation are Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania.
  4. According to media reports, there have been numerous demonstrations in Mali in recent years, with protestors chanting anti-French and pro-Russian slogans.

From our partner RIAC

Alexei Chikhachev
Alexei Chikhachev
International Relations Department, St. Petersburg State University Republican Party