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France/Africa: Paris, the power broker

By Ben Fox
Posted on Wednesday, 9 October 2019 09:48

A French soldier stands guards in front of an NH90 Caiman military helicopter during Operation Barkhane in Ndaki, Mali, 29 July 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

“Don’t underestimate the role of France,” says Geert Laporte, the deputy director of the European Centre for Development Policy Management, a think tank.

[This is the third is our series on Europe-Africa relations – previous articles here: EU eyes Chinese influence and UK-Africa post-Brexit relations]

President Macron may have grabbed attention for all the wrong reasons, talking in alarmist terms about demography. “When you have 7-8 children per woman, you can have 8% growth and you will remain poor. Ask your women – if they are ok with it, then fine. If it’s about forced marriage, then no.”

But France’s long game in Africa is security and business. And here, it prefers things to remain the way they were.

The potential absence of Britain from the European Union (EU) table makes an EU-African Union trade deal far less likely. It also strengthens the hand of France in shaping future trade and political relations with the African continent.

Together with Portugal, France is the main supporter of retaining the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group as Europe’s main interlocutor for EU-Africa relations on politics and trade.

  • The ACP is a cooperative grouping that includes 79 developing countries.
  • Its latest framework is the Cotonou Agreement, which covers trade and other policies in the period from 2000 to 2020.

Togo’s foreign affairs minister Robert Dussey is the ACP’s chief negotiator on the post-Cotonou treaty and is seen by many in Brussels as an ally of Paris.

“For [the EU], the AU is unreliable and a bit of a loose cannon,” says Laporte. “The ACP is a group that they control. They are a reliable negotiating partner.”

In his speech at the Conference of Ambassadors on August 27, France’s President Emmanuel Macron pushed a familiar set of Africa policy priorities:

  • They are built around close relations with Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria;
  • Continued military engagement in Libya and the Sahel region as part of France’s determination to stop the spread of jihadism; and
  • A climate strategy for the continent, which is “most vulnerable to climate change”.

Macron added that France and Europe cannot fall into the trap of making Africa a territory of “influence” as China has, but one of partnership.

France has been pushing the wider EU position of seeking to increase private investment in Africa. It has also become the leader in pushing other EU countries to contribute financial and military support for the G5 Sahel counter-terrorism mission, launched in July 2017 as a joint military force commanded by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, and other security operations.

Part of the rationale for Macron’s Sahel initiatives is French anxiety to ensure that Operation Barkhane, its own military mission in the Sahel, does not become a permanent, and expensive, arrangement.

Matching development goals with military commitment would go a long way towards achieving that.

However, development projects under the G5 Sahel banner have been painfully slow in getting started.

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