Paul Taylor is a contributing editor at .
PARIS — The bigger the humiliation, the more grandiloquent the relaunch.
After a year that saw French forces conducting counterinsurgency operations against jihadist rebels hounded out of Mali and Burkina Faso by military coups, anti-colonialist street protests, and Russian disinformation and mercenaries, President Emmanuel Macron announced a fundamental overhaul of France’s Africa strategy.
“Humility,” “partnership” and “investment” are now the keywords in a reset that Macron outlined in a speech he delivered before embarking on his 18th trip to Africa in just eight years.
Many Africans were understandably skeptical as the French president took his new doctrine on a tour of Gabon, Angola, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — an eclectic mix of former French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies that have big economic potential, and are being heavily courted by Russia and China as well as Europe.
“The days of la Françafrique are well and truly over,” Macron insisted in Gabon’s capital Libreville. He was not the first president to promise an end to the postcolonial manipulation of African politics, with crony ties between the French elite and long-serving African autocrats.
The French leader’s enunciation of a sea change in Franco-African ties sounded oddly like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s proclamation of a Zeitenwende — an epochal turning point in Berlin’s policy toward Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We have reached the end of a cycle of French history in which military questions held preeminence in Africa,” Macron said, the first French president to be born after the end of colonial rule. Henceforth, “there will be no military bases as such,” but “new military partnerships” with African allies, and French forces on the continent will be focusing on training local troops.
In a conscious effort to shed the mantle of paternalism and hard security, Macron built his four-day trip around the themes of saving African forests, developing agriculture, investing in African business and supporting a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. He also went clubbing in Kinshasa, beer in hand, with Congolese singer Fally Ipupa.
He steered clear of France’s traditional West African backyard, where Paris’s counterinsurgency policy suffered its deepest setbacks.
“Our destiny is tied to the African continent. If we are able to seize this chance, we have the opportunity to anchor ourselves to the continent, which will increasingly be one of the youngest and most dynamic economic markets in the world, and one of the great centers of global growth in the decades to come,” Macron said.
He was making a virtue of necessity, to say the least.
By shrinking its military footprint without abandoning key footholds in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Djibouti, France hopes to avoid further forced retreats from the continent’s strategic corners. Then, referring to Russia’s Wagner mercenaries who have supplanted French forces in Mali and the Central African Republic, Macron said he was sure Africans would soon regret the paramilitary group’s presence.
But small crowds of anti-French demonstrators in Libreville and Kinshasa were a reminder of France’s tarnished image among many young Africans, as well as accusations of political interference that dog Macron’s attempt at a new start.
In Gabon, protesters accused the French leader of helping veteran President Ali Bongo’s reelection campaign — a charge he felt obliged to deny. And in the DRC, he faced both public criticism from President Felix Tshisekedi, as well as protests by opposition activists.
If you’re France, in Africa, you simply can’t win. No one is going to take your professions of good faith, political neutrality, partnership and brotherly love at face value.
Macron has arguably been the most progressive French president when it comes to Africa, officially acknowledging colonial France’s mistreatment of Algerians, and seeking an ever-elusive reconciliation. He has apologized in Rwanda for his country’s role in failing to prevent the 1994 genocide by Hutu militias against ethnic Tutsis. He has created a commission to investigate colonial massacres in Cameroon too.
Macron has reached out to youngsters, civil society and start-ups, sometimes over the heads of African governments. He has agreed to scrap the CFA franc — the eight-nation West African currency tied to France — to be replaced by the Eco in 2027. He is the first French leader to have returned cultural treasures to Africa as well, sending a collection of statues to Benin in what is likely to set a precedent.
Yet, though they make French nationalists’ blood boil, such gestures are too little, too late for many Africans.
France would probably be best advised to channel its efforts instead under the more politically acceptable banner of the European Union, which is building a comprehensive partnership with the African Union — the key principles of which were outlined at a summit in Brussels in February 2022.
As bad luck would have it, however, that budding relationship has been overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has monopolized the EU’s political and financial attention.
Africans clearly see how the bloc — France included — has plowed billions of euros in military and financial assistance into Ukraine, while support for African peace and security efforts has been far more constrained. They also see how Ukraine has gained EU candidate status and been center stage at every summit, while Africa had to struggle to secure even belated help in procuring COVID-19 vaccines.
Moreover, the war in Ukraine has added to food insecurity and an energy-price squeeze on the continent. For many Africans, Europe seems more concerned with blaming Russia than helping.
Macron’s African reset is in many ways a halfway house — he admitted as much in his big speech. “We are held accountable for the past without having been totally convincing about the shape of our common future,” he said.
The decision to rebrand the African bases as joint training ventures was itself reportedly a compromise between advisers who argued against yielding another inch to France’s adversaries, and others who want to shutter most outposts and refocus the armed forces on preparing for possible high-intensity warfare in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
While 61 percent of voters think France should stay in Africa because of its economic and security interests — as well as to help prevent mass migration to Europe — an Odoxa poll for Le Figaro showed that a similar majority is pessimistic about Franco-African ties, and doubtful of Macron’s ability to build a new relationship.
This may not be the last Franco-African reset.
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