Adieu to Africa
France’s posture toward African nations has taken an accelerated turn.
Two days prior to embarking on a tour of four African countries, Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech that outlined his vision of relations with the continent. He reiterated his 2017 statement made in Burkina Faso: “There is no such thing as a French African policy.” This remark echoes another controversial statement he made few years ago, that “there is no such thing as French culture.” In both instances, Macron condemned the past, yet also conveyed a doubt regarding the future.
France's international status rested upon two pillars: its nuclear deterrent and its influence in Africa. However, as noted in Marc Endeweld's book L'Emprise, when Macron served on the Commission for Unleashing French Growth under President Sarkozy, he suggested discarding France's nuclear weapons. The future president contended that this would lead to substantial savings, and pointed out that Germany, after all, doesn’t have them. This indifference toward the first pillar of French geopolitical significance is matched by his defeatism concerning the second.
The second foundation of French standing is eroding day by day, as resentment toward France in Africa has reached new heights. The French sense it: 62 percent of the population is pessimistic about the future of relations between the Hexagone and the continent. At a time when other countries are eager to establish footholds in Africa, Macron declared that for the French the “logic of military power” on the continent is coming to an end.
Charles de Gaulle argued that the nuclear deterrent was created not with an eye to the present, but to the distant future, which no one can predict. Africa's geopolitical importance—because of its resources, markets, and demographics—will continue to grow. By limiting French room for maneuver, Macron appears to discard any future ambitions that his country could have in Africa.
On March 1, the French president started his tour in Gabon. What was once a French colony has recently joined the Commonwealth, demonstrating a stronger emphasis on relations with the Anglo-Saxon world over Paris. During a press conference, President Ali Bongo chose to deliver only the introduction of his speech in French, with the rest of his statement in English. Unlike his father, who previously led the country, Bongo appears to hold little interest in maintaining strong ties with France. During a summit of Francophone countries in 2011, he declared English as Gabon's second official language.
While Paris seems to have lost its influence in the domain of soft power, it also appears passive and complacent in the economic sphere, with the rare exception of companies like Total. In contrast, American Bechtel is building infrastructure around the country, Singapore's Olam is investing in agriculture, while Gabonese exports are mainly directed toward Asia, with 60 percent being sent to China.
The visit to Congo-Brazzaville, a former French colony that became the capital of France libre during World War II, was brief. President Denis Sassou Nguesso aimed to strengthen the legitimacy of his rule by capitalizing on the French leader's arrival. Macron's stay lasted for only a few hours before he left for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
DRC President Félix Tshisekedi hoped that Macron would condemn Rwanda-backed militias making incursions into the country. However, despite heralding “humility” in relations with Africa before his departure, the French leader scolded the Congolese president for the country's inability to consolidate its sovereignty since 1994. He also cautioned Tshisekedi not to blame external forces. Laurent Bigot, a French diplomat previously affiliated with the West Africa department, noted that “Macron's attitude towards Africans was the same as his attitude towards the French. In both cases, such an attitude won’t be well received.”
Macron's approach to African politics was to pivot from Francophone countries to Anglophone and Lusophone ones. It seems this effort won’t yield a change of desired magnitude. Antoine Glaser and Pascal Airault remark in their book, Le Piége africain de Macron, that the French president “tried to charm the Nigerian billionaires, but to little avail.” He was also apparently intrigued by Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, seeking to establish a relationship with him, against the wishes of the French military establishment. Nevertheless, Macron's efforts with Kagame were in vain.
His visit in Luanda should be counted as another disappointment, as establishing a privileged relationship that turned out to be more difficult than previously thought. The French president hoped for a fresh start, but faced stiff competition as Secretary of State Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib had already visited the country earlier this year. A full Africa tour would also include other countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso. However, it is unclear when the French president will be able to visit them.
In September of last year, during the coup that led Ibrahim Traoré to power in Burkina Faso, his supporters attacked the French embassy and looted the French Institute. In December, the French ambassador was expelled, Radio France Internationale was banned from broadcasting, and military treaties with Paris were terminated. As a result, 400 French special forces soldiers had to leave the country.
A similar wave of resentment toward France has been building in Mali. The new authorities there have openly accused France of committing crimes against civilians and funding jihadists. Moreover, Bamako made these accusations at the U.N. by submitting a letter to the Security Council.
Many factors have contributed to the development of animosity toward France. African leaders do not want the youth of their countries, who represent the majority and are impatient to transcend the post-colonial context, to perceive them as backwards looking, so they resort to playing the anti-French card. Some have suggested French public opinion as the culprit, as it tends to focus on condemning the country's colonial past, highlighting its atrocities and wrongdoings, and denigrating the French as racists and Islamophobes. Others still point to Russian propaganda, spread by mercenaries associated with the Kremlin's Wagner Group. Paris initially underestimated the threat posed by Wagner; today, however, it overestimates its influence, while overlooking much more formidable competitors, such as China.
The root cause of France's tarnished image and diminished influence in the region can be traced elsewhere. It was French neoconservatism and the failed war on terror in the Sahel that led to this outcome. In October 2012, the proliferation of jihadist groups in northern Mali was a cause for concern, but then-President François Hollande assured that France's involvement would be restricted to humanitarian and financial aid. However, in January of the following year, he announced that French troops would intervene at the request of the Malian president to “protect the population's right to live in freedom and democracy.” Sahel specialist Stephen Smith wrote, “La Françafrique, that infamous amalgam of truncated African sovereignty and French interventionism in sub-Saharan Africa, seemed to have returned.”
During the intervention in Mali, Dominique de Villepin, who as a foreign minister a decade earlier had opposed the intervention in Iraq, raised the most compelling objection. “How did it come to pass that our minds were infected by the virus of neoconservatism?” he wondered, warning that Paris was treading the same path that had led Washington to the American debacle in the Middle East. Given the fractured Malian army, a crumbling government, and a lack of defined objectives, Villepin bluntly asked, on whom should France lean on in this operation?
According to Smith, France imposed political changes on sub-Saharan Africa by force on nearly thirty occasions from 1945 to 1990. When Hollande revived the Cold War-era pattern of projecting French power on the continent, he enjoyed an immediate political boost—with approval ratings skyrocketing from 40 percent to 63 percent—while the army was rewarded with a larger budget. Dissident voices were powerless.
Last year, after almost a decade, Macron ordered the shutdown of the Sahel operations (known initially as Serval and then Barkhane). The president aimed to distance France from the Sahel conundrum by seeking to “internationalize” the operation and creating Task Force Takuba. The unit, comprising special forces from European nations, was intended to supplant Barkhane and serve as a “laboratory” for a European army. Unfortunately, the Malian government's hostility toward French troops and its increasing alignment with the Wagner Group, thwarted the endeavor. As a result, Takuba had to depart before reaching its full operational potential.
In response to the unsuccessful intervention and growing anti-French sentiment, Macron has made the decision to reduce the French military presence in Africa. Currently, France has military bases in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Djibouti. Only the latter will retain its current status; the rest are to be turned into training centers, but only on the condition of the host countries' consent.
Although the president asserts that this is not a “withdrawal,” his fog of words is deceiving. France's military structure will be scaled back, limiting the ability to intervene or evacuate French citizens in the event of an emergency. Macron admitted openly that he considers the security aspect of the French presence in Africa an “anachronism.”
Alongside its military influence, the French economic presence in Africa is also waning. The competition on the continent is becoming more intense. In 2013, French Senators Jean-Marie Bockel and Jeanny Lorgeoux already warned that the French construction sector could not compete in Anglophone or even Francophone countries. They pointed out that Chinese projects are 30 percent cheaper than French ones, yet meet the same high standards.
Small and medium-sized businesses no longer believe they can achieve anything on the continent, with only a few giants such as Bouyges, Castel, and Total still maintaining a foothold. In Le piège africain de Macron, Glaser and Airault note that French companies overestimate the risks of investing in Africa and often avoid seeking government assistance, which has become a liability due to France's declining reputation. The Bolloré group, a major player in the region, has already sold its sixteen port terminals and vast network of port warehouses in over forty countries to the Italian-Swiss MSC group, effectively exiting the African market.
French soft power in Africa is deteriorating rapidly. African elites are receiving their education in the United States, China, or even London, while Chinese and Turkish TV series are gaining huge popularity. In a survey conducted by the French Council of Investors in Africa, as Glaser and Airault report, African opinion leaders ranked France ninth in terms of being the most desirable partner for the continent, trailing behind countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
China is well aware that good optics translate into a better environment for investments. However, despite the fact that they spend more on the continent than the U.S., “across 18 countries in 2019-20, 32% of Africans prefer the U.S. model, compared to 23% who opt for the Chinese model.” Although Africa is well-disposed toward the U.S., and U.S. policymakers recognize its geoeconomic importance, American investment on the continent is rather timid.
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Biden has promised to invest $55 billion over three year. In contrast, China intends to invest $40 billion over the next two years and its economic advantage on the continent is already significant: In 2009, it became Africa's largest bilateral trade partner, and in 2018, as Tang Xiaoyang claims in Coevolutionary Pragmatism: Approaches and Impacts of China-Africa Economic Cooperation, Sino-African trade “was worth more than Africa's trade with the United States, Japan, France, and the United Kingdom combined.”
The question of how the U.S. will approach the scramble for Africa remains unanswered, as it is unclear whether it will focus on countries with crucial resources or take a more comprehensive approach to balance the expansion of other powers, China in particular. China's presence on the continent cannot always be countered with financial resources alone, as demonstrated by the example of Huawei's telecommunications networks. American technological alternatives are necessary to compete with China in Africa and elsewhere. The effects of Africa's reliance on Chinese credit and telecommunications infrastructure will manifest themselves in due time.
Meanwhile, the continent presents a snapshot of a multipolar world, where a variety of forces and interests collide, serving as a wake-up call to those who believe the globe will be divided into two neatly separated blocs. France has chosen not to participate in this race, with Macron stating that “we are accountable for the past, but we do not know what shape our shared future should take.” The continent of the young senses this lack of faith in the future, the easiness with which France has grown accustomed to decline. As Stephen Smith observed, “Africa no longer recognizes France, and if it does, it is to reject it.”