Ever since his first term in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has sought a broad reset of national strategy, relations and intervention in Africa owing to France’s complicated and chequered historical legacy in the continent. During a diplomatic tour to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in November 2017, President Macron surprisingly acknowledged
that France did not have a grand strategy for its diplomacy on the continent anymore. He reiterated the need for both sides to acknowledge their shared history and reinvent their political relationships. France now wants to pursue a foreign policy with its African partners that is grounded on a more equal footing. However, such an attempt at a diplomatic reset has been limited for the most part, owing to several reasons like bureaucratic infighting, controversial policy choices, transactional economic and aid policy, and a military-driven security policy that has failed to curb extremism in the Sahel and to adapt to the region’s social and political transformations.
It is against this backdrop that on 27 February 2023, President Macron shared his vision of a renewed partnership with Africa before embarking on a four-nation tour to Gabon, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo. At the heart of this strategy lies his desire to address the legacy of French colonialism in Francophone countries but also called for a “new, balanced, reciprocal, and responsible relationship” with Africa, while respecting African identities.
France now wants to pursue a foreign policy with its African partners that is grounded on a more equal footing.
This decision to enter a “new era
” in France’s relationship with Africa comes at a time when France’s influence on the continent is waning. Street protests fuelled by anti-French sentiments in many West and North African countries were becoming a regular feature. The days of France’s traditional sphere of influence—known as Françafrique, which the French retained after decolonisation, has become more threatened and unsustainable over time. During the same period, African countries have looked to diversify their basket of external partners to reduce their dependence on Western aid. Today’s multipolar world has meant that countries from the Global South like China, India, and Türkiye provide an alternative development model for African countries to pursue.
Takeaways from France’s new Africa strategy
President Macron’s speech certainly evoked a desire to profoundly change France’s relations with Africa. However, such promises are not new. They have been promised in the past, but any real transformation has not been evident on the ground. There were three big takeaways from President Macron’s speech: Firstly, President Macron acknowledged that Africa now is a “land of competition”. He urged French businesses to “wake up” and compete with Africa’s other international partners in a more proactive manner. France is now trying to promote an economic model that moves away from an “aid approach” to a partnership-based united investment approach.
Secondly, President Macron reaffirmed France’s support for African democracies as opposed to military regimes. Although it’s apparent that Paris wants to maintain its role as a guardian of democracy, its support for authoritarian regimes, like those in Central Africa, has sometimes garnered disappointment amongst the masses regarding its human rights rhetoric. France’s double standards were quite evident when it adopted a conciliatory position and backed Chad’s military takeover in April 2021
, whereas it condemned the coups in Mali and Guinea.
France is now apparently aiming to act as a neutral interlocuter rather than interfering in the domestic politics of African countries.
The final and perhaps the most important takeaway is Paris’ intention to make French interference on the continent a thing of the past. France is now apparently aiming to act as a neutral interlocuter rather than interfering in the domestic politics of African countries. Paris has declared its intention to enter a new security partnership with African countries. This would entail a noticeable reduction of French troops and staff in its military bases across the continent, while simultaneously increasing the presence of African staff and personnel. The idea is not to close French military bases in Africa completely, but to transform them based on the needs expressed by African partners.
However, it is interesting to note that regarding a reduction in French troop numbers in Africa, no specific numbers or timelines were provided and nor were anyverifiable indicators of such reduction provided.
Trapped in a pattern of military interventionism?
Over the last five years, France’s military and security role in Africa, particularly in the Sahel region, has been criticised and placed under public scrutiny. Paris’ security-driven approach continues to be stuck in a pattern of heavy military action
in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and the Central African Republic. For the most part, France framed its role in Africa as a security provider having counterterrorism at the heart of its engagement. This approach was visible in 2013 with the initiation of Operation Serval in Mali, which was renamed as Operation Barkhane
in 2014. The operations were unable to address the growing web of security and governance concerns in Mali and formally ended on 9 November 2022 with the withdrawal
of French troops and military resources. A combination of factors like the Malian military coup and the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Mali offered an opportunity to French policymakers to withdraw definitively. This withdrawal eventually forced Sahelian countries to turn towards Russian military contractors—the Wagner Group
—to fill the security vacuum.
A combination of factors like the Malian military coup and the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Mali offered an opportunity to French policymakers to withdraw definitively.
For the time being, France’s Africa policy continues to be dominated by the security dimension. It is in Paris’ interest to preserve and maintain a military presence in the region. This is not only to limit Russian influence in the continent, but also to realise that any instability in Africa constitutes a direct threat to Europe’s security, due to their geographical proximity.
Continuation of imperial monetary policy?
Additionally, the economic dimension of France-Africa engagement has also attracted criticism
. The Communauté Financière Africaine (African Financial Community) franc, known popularly as the CFA franc which dates to 1945, is still used in two monetary zones—the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) and in the Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States. Essentially, as part of the arrangement, France’s former colonies were obligated to deposit 50 percent of their foreign exchange reserves into the French treasury. The economic imbalance created by the CFA issue attracted political criticism, which subsequently led countries like Madagascar and Mauritania to give up the CFA franc to adopt their own currencies
France’s new strategy for partnership with African countries clearly demonstrates Paris’ desire to redress the mistakes of the past and reimagine its diplomatic outreach to Africa. It has provided an opportunity for France to regain its lost popularity and reassess its security-first approach in the continent. While military interventions in Africa no longer have the desired influence, it would take some time before we can gauge if the new strategy truly enables France to break away from its past approach towards Africa.
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