Africa-France Summit 2021: A Real Revival or a Trick?


On October 8–9, the New Africa-France 2021 Summit was held in Montpellier. Partially covered by French mainstream media, the event was nevertheless quite important and telling as far as the Franco-African relations are concerned. Beyond the criticism during this meeting, some critical writers, such as the Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop for Mediapart, have attacked the Summit, labelling it as a symbol of a “New Look of Françafrique”. Why such criticism of the new mode of dialogue between Africa and France?

A more informal format rather than the official Leaders’ Summit

Concretely, the conference specificities were to gather representatives of civil society rather than state officials (no heads of state were invited). Among the guests, there were some 3,000 young entrepreneurs, civil society activists, artists or sportsmen from the African continent but also those from the diaspora.

Interestingly, English-speaking nations appear among the 12 countries that instigated the process since early 2021. These include Angola, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, on which President Macron has been focusing since 2017, without much concretization in terms of projects. In addition, more traditional Francophone nations have also joined the call: Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, the Republic of the Congo and Tunisia. Others will probably join the next edition. On the one hand, this format is not exactly brand-new, being close to the U.S.-Africa Business Summit, which celebrated its 13th edition on July 27–29, 2021. On the other hand, it still differs from U.S.–Africa Leaders, Turkey–Africa or Russia–Africa Summits that host heads of state or government.

Besides, the more informal format of the summit often reflects the incompleteness that formal consultation platforms can represent. Indirectly, a better relationship with civil society could support effective lobbying of policy and legislative bodies. In the particular case of Africa, the implementation of the AfCFTA (African Continental Free Trade Area) since January 1, 2021 may also give leverage to such business consultation platforms, through the processes of normative harmonization that it may gradually bring about. While political elites and leaders are the prime targets for implementing particular development policies and partnerships, civil societies often end up being the ultimate business partners in the long run. They are also likely to be more stable than political elites (the Euro-Russian exchanges testify to this assumption).

Back to the Africa-France Summit of 2021, the items on the agenda were gender equality, official development assistance and its impacts, democracy and governance, biodiversity conservation, new technologies, employability and youth mobility. These issues were in parallel to priorities such as access to school and higher education, increasing opportunities for mobility, supporting entrepreneurship and innovation, accompanying Africa in the front line of the climate transition and forging a new common consciousness, notably by strengthening links of memory.

Interestingly, French-designed priorities for this edition were quite different from the ones of the U.S.-Africa Business Summit, whose priorities were health security, trade, energy, agribusiness, digital transformation, manufacture, finance women and diaspora-empowered trade. To put it plainly, the American agenda dealt with investments and trade, whereas the French agenda had more to do with political and governmental matters, although it was held with representatives of civil society.

However, France’s initiative still shows a willingness to move slightly from a diplomatic narrative to a more informal relationship with partners in Africa. As Rémy Rioux (CEO of the French Development Agency) pointed out to France 24 on October 8 in the margins of the summit, Emmanuel Macron wants to normalise relations, recalibrating them by talking less about assistance and more about investment.

France’s troubling communication on the eve of an important Summit

This summit took place in a sensitive context. Not as a first episode, the Franco-Algerian relations have seen tensions following Macron’s remarks on the “memory rent” of the Algerian political elite, which led—among other reasons—to a diplomatic dispute and the recall of the Algerian ambassador. If the end of the Bouteflika era suggested a return to the polarisation of memorial issues, this episode constitutes a particularly tense crisis point.

Shortly before this episode with Algeria, France was the target of the Malian Prime Minister, Choguel Maigan, who, speaking at the UN on September 25, denounced a “rural abandonment” by France, referring to the end of the Barkhane military operation. These comments were described by Emmanuel Macron on 28 September as “shameful and dishonourable for what is not even a government.”

As a result, the Summit was held in a tough context. However, this calls into question French communication with African partners. Is it just a bad coverage or a paving stone in the pond reflecting the need for France to reposition politically? Or could it perform as a destabilisation strategy to force a change of position on the African side?

Combined with the new format of the summit, they certainly reflect the desire of France and the Macron government’s foreign policy to redefine the relationship with Africa and move away from post-colonial memory and struggles. In reactionary terms, the effect seems to be the opposite of the objective. The more attempts at erasure and discussion come in, the more the fire seems to be stoked. Of course, these attempts are only a framework. Generational factors affecting mutual perceptions cannot be changed so quickly. However, this new Summit could serve as a forum for Franco-African civil societies to cooperate in a way that is different from the more formal diplomatic modes of cooperation. This will obviously be a complementary format to diplomacy, but no less important.

A Summit whose success was limited by political considerations – Translation of a relationship with emotional overtones

Rather unclear before the Summit, this common consciousness was mentioned by the French president as the will to develop a common historical narrative intended to educate French and African youth in a convergent manner and to avoid memorial conflicts. How appropriate was this topic for a summit with African civil societies? It may well reflect the substance of the issues at stake in the relationship.

Although this summit aimed to reconsider the links between civil societies, the issues addressed were mainly political and referred to colonial history. Among them, the management of the CFA Franc, the relationship with regimes deemed dictatorial or the Senegalese riflemen (tirailleurs sénégalais)… President Macron evoked the “responsibility” of France in slavery and colonisation. Quoting the French President, “a country like France has a duty to respond to the demands of African youth (…). We cannot have a project for the future (…) if it does not assume its share of Africaness” considering “nearly seven million French people whose lives are intimately, family, directly, in the first or second generation, linked to Africa. (…)”. If the tone is necessarily adapted to the audience, these words are informally binding and France seems to take this risk.

While the objective of the Summit is to serve as a frame to a redefinition of the relationship, the political tinge remains full of old shadows. At this issue, Macron explicitly refused any forgiveness, considering (quoting Paul Ricoeur) that there is no politics of forgiveness but rather a politics of recognition and promises. This allusion is significant because Ricoeur, in his work on the ethics of forgiveness, completely rejects the idea of a politics of forgiveness. For him, “people are incapable of forgiving, of leaving the friend-enemy relationship” [1].

In short, the form of the Summit reflects the desire to manifest a possible Africanisation of Africa-France relations rather than a unilateral “francisation” of relations as some African comments would have us believe. Nevertheless, the debates that took place showed the difficulty that would be evident in cultivating a new narrative and the colonial memory page that remains open on the African side.

If President Macron is forced to make a big difference between no apology and a willingness to engage in genuine dialogue, its play is not well readable to the public opinion, even in France as pointed out by some newspapers. Besides, the French military disengagement with the end of Operation Barkhane (early 2022) and this new module, which aims to reach out to civil societies, will demonstrate a range of strategies for rethinking Africa-France relations. The assumption of empowering disengagement—rebalancing of relations—may be favoured as the route to normalised relationships.

Formats competing with France and highlighting the competitive advantage of powers deemed non-colonial

To broaden the perspective of this summit, it is also necessary to mention the equivalent models to which other states aspire. In terms of both trade and influence, counterparts to France include Turkey, Russia and China. From 21 to 23 October, the Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum took place. Both with civil societies and state officials, it hosted 3,000 African and Turkish businesspeople as well as government ministers and other top officials from 45 African countries. It thus gathered a larger audience than the French Summit did. In addition, just before the Summit, Erdogan paid a four-day visit to the African continent where he presented Turkey as an alternative partner to post-colonial actors (setting the Ottoman period aside).

Another actor challenging France in terms of political influence is Russia, which in another dimension than Turkey has the reputation in France of “flirting with anti-imperialist sentiments”. Its model uses consultation platforms as well, such as the first Russia-Africa Summit held in October 2019, with the second Summit scheduled for 2022. It is, instead, a very formal format bringing together heads of state or government. The 2019 format was a great success, showing the growing importance of Russia in engaging nations in Africa.

In this respect, Russia’s competitive advantage, like other reputed ‘anti-imperialist powers’, lies in its distance from modern colonial history, as is also the case with China, which gives it a certain leverage. Relations with civil societies are less constrained by the wounds of history on the one hand, and it is easier to deal with political leaders on strategic issues on the other. The strengthening of these connections partly explains the growing tensions between France and Russia on certain high-stakes operations such as in Mali, where France (Florence Parly, Ministry of the Armed Forces) asked Malian authorities to refuse the support of the Wagner Group or risk losing international support.

Finally, and by way of conclusion, as a French expert and multi-ambassador to Africa (who wished to remain anonymous) told the author of the column recently, relations between France and Africa suffer from misperception. It is often claimed that the French discourse does not fully support African empowerment, while to say this undermines the idea that every state is sovereign. In his view, the view of relations with Africa is infantilising and should, therefore, always proceed from the assumption that every state is sovereign. From sovereignty, more or less independent and responsible relations follow.

While such a position may seem harsh from a diplomatic point of view, the format of privileging relations with civil societies as a medium for commercial and cultural exchange must be the means for an accountable and sustainable relationship. In this regard, emphasising Anglophone Africa is a path to development for France but this should not be at the expense of using the liabilities in the former colonies.

1. Paul Ricoeur, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, 2003, p.617-618

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