French President Emmanuel Macron has gained some considerable success during his trips to Africa, mostly capitalizing on the geopolitical neutrality of African leaders. And African leaders, without doubt, will benefit tremendously from this neutral position. He was in Gabon for an environmental summit, before heading to Angola then the Republic of Congo — also known as Congo-Brazzaville — and finally to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Macron also held talks with Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera in Gabon, after relations had deteriorated as Russian influence increased in Bangui and French troops left the troubled country last year.
This African trips aim at renewing frayed ties, and therefore all along the line, he pointedly focuses on practical development projects and humanitarian needs, and pushes a bit forward French soft power in those African countries. Anti-French sentiment runs high in some former African colonies as the continent becomes a renewed diplomatic battleground, with Russian and Chinese influence growing. But Macron, with high determination, explained the era of French interference – “Françafrique” – in Africa had ended and there was no desire to return to the past methods.
Here is interesting to note that majority of African leaders, with the simple understanding that their countries have several years ago attained their political freedom from colonialism, and currently the main challenging task is centered around transforming the staggering economy in order to win the hearts and minds of their electorate as well as ordinary citizens. This is exactly the strategy, to back away from anti-colonial rhetoric and adopt a different strategy of capitalizing on external resources needed for development on the continent.
According to reports monitored by this author, Brussels would set up a “humanitarian air bridge” to deliver aid to conflict-hit eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as the visiting French president said all sides had given support to a ceasefire. Macron lauds DR Congo ceasefire as EU sets up air bridge, the air bridge will link with Goma, the capital of DR Congo’s eastern North Kivu province, where fighting with the rebel group M23 has displaced more than 600,000 people. The operation will “deliver humanitarian support in the form of medical and nutritional supplies along with a range of other emergency items”, a European Commission statement said.
During talks with Angolan President João Lourenço and DRC President Felix Tshisekedi, as well as Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Macron said all had “given clear support” to a ceasefire, as envisaged in the timeline mediated by Angola. The EU said it was also releasing some €47 million to be channelled through humanitarian partners for immediate needs such as nutrition, healthcare, shelter and water. The DRC government has accused Rwanda of backing the militia group M23, which re-emerged from dormancy in late 2021, subsequently occupying swathes of territory in North Kivu.
“The EU stands ready to mobilise all the necessary means to support humanitarian workers, including logistics and air, to meet the needs of the population in Democratic Republic of Congo,” said the EU’s commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic.
In the Angolan capital Luanda, Macron held talks with his counterpart João Lourenço, calling the oil-rich country a “strategic partner in the region.” He chaired an economic forum attended by more than 50 French companies, underlined the indeible fact that ” the heart of the visit was the strengthening of agricultural partnerships” with Angola. Records, however, show that France has for decades been involved in the petroleum industry in the Portuguese-speaking southern African country, which is one of the continent’s top crude producers.
In Gabon, there is one interesting political development. President Ali Bongo Ondimba is currently in the run-up to presidential elections later this year. Ali Bongo, 64, has been president since succeeding his long-ruling father in 2009. Experts have envisaged that Macron’s visit could fix boost to his political influence in the country. Some opposition activists in Gabon demonstrated against his visit, which they perceived as bringing support to Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose family has ruled since the 1960s, before the presidential election scheduled later this year.
On the other side of politics, the One Forest Summit in the capital focused on preserving forests worldwide, including along the vast Congo River basin. Covering 1.62 million square kilometres (more than 625,000 million square miles), the forests of Central Africa represent the planet’s second-largest carbon sink after the Amazon. They are also home to huge biodiversity including forest elephants and gorillas, and bear traces of the settlement of early humanity. But they face threats such as poaching, deforestation for the oil palm and rubber industries, and illegal logging and mineral exploitation.
Reports monitored from the Elysee palace in Paris in a pre-departure speech, there was one herculian step underlined in the French policy approach: France’s military bases in Africa will gradually be co-run and managed with their host nations, after Paris suffered a series of setbacks in its former sphere of influence, and also an effort to defuse tensions particularly in French West Africa.
According to him, these bases will not be closed but re-organized, the new bases or “academies” will start to gradually be “africanized” and ran in conjunction with African and European partners. More than 3,000 French soldiers are deployed in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Djibouti, according to official figures. Another 3,000 are in the Sahel, including in Niger and Chad.
Paul Melly at the Africa Programme, London based Chatham House, wrote that Macron’s main mission was to counter Russia in Africa. According to the Chatham expert, the whirlwind tour of African capitals was directed at shifting French policy on the continent away from military involvement. And the economic ties between France and its former colonializers were a form of continued exploitation.
Russia, hoping to rebuild the influence it had lost since the Cold War decades, is offering security support to governments that feel under threat or isolated from the international mainstream: mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked military contractor Wagner are now operating in Mali and the Central African Republic, where they have been accused of human rights abuses. China is a massive funder and builder of infrastructure, albeit on terms that Macron fears could trap some countries in debt crisis. Turkey and India are increasingly active too.
In parallel with this effort at reconciliation over past history, Macron has been seeking to deepen today’s cultural connections and exchange of ideas. As part of pushing “soft power” with French-speaking Africa, he has announced schemes to promote sports training and to ease access to visas for Africans to pursue post-graduate study in France. However, the public impact of these initiatives, particularly in the eyes of African public opinion, has been largely lost during years when the most prominent dimension of French engagement has been the military struggle against militant groups in the Sahel.
Nevertheless, France calls time on anti-jihadist Sahel operation. Growing controversy came to surround the operations of the French force Barkhane, finally withdrawn from Mali in August last year. This has fuelled an upsurge in populist nationalism in some countries and a more generalised resentment of France across most of Francophone West and Central Africa, particularly among urban youth. Having instigated a shift towards a lower profile and more collaborative military approach, Macron has tried to reinvigorate this broader reform and change agenda.
In recent months, Paris has accused Russia of spreading disinformation to undermine French interests in former colonies. At the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to demand Russia immediately withdraw its troops from its pro-Western neighbour Ukraine, three of the four countries Macron visited early March — Gabon, Angola and Congo-Brazzaville — abstained alongside China and India.
Macron, 45, is the first French president born after the colonial era, and has been in a charm offensive to win back lost influence. He has previously sought to extend France’s cooperation with a number English-speaking countries, like Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, and increase French investments in Africa’s private sector, as well as offering scholarships for study programmes. After his re-election as French head of state last year, has made Africa is a priority, and in July he undertook a trip to Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. The President’s administration noted in a statement that “his priorities and his method to deepen the partnership between France, Europe and the African continent” and frankly criticized “the crimes of European colonisation” and called for a “truly new relationship” between Africa and Europe.
It is very crucial that Europe and Africa be as close as possible in dialogue to address difference, Africa could still benefit from French investment. Europe offers tourism destinations, and is still the traditional market for Africa. It is a matter of mutually understandable cooperation, but not to close corporate business doors. Russia’s instruments for now is only hyperbolic policy rhetoric, boasting several bilateral agreements with Africa. After all, Russia is not investing as expected and has even publicly said how muc it was prepared to invest in Africa.
Judging from developments and in a concized summary, France’s Africa policy is under necessary transformation and re-designing generally for achieving a “mutual and responsible relationship” with Africa and within the context of the new configuration and geopolitical changes. Therefore, with warm-heartedness and an irreversible pledge to break away from the former post-colonial policies, there is a bright headlight at horizon and in the future of the changing France-African relations.