France-Africa: Emmanuel Macron, from speech to action?
Increased economic cooperation, enhanced political dialogue, strong symbolic gestures... Emmanuel Macron wants a new chapter in relations between Paris and the continent.
It was two years ago, at the University of Ouagadougou. In an amphitheatre packed with Burkinabe students, Emmanuel Macron, who had arrived at the Elysée six months earlier, delivered his vision of the new relationship he intended to forge with Africa.
It was similar to the promises made by his predecessors ever since General de Gaulle: to end Françafrique, its unhealthy links and obscure networks.
Plus ça change…
Nothing very new, then, except a change in terms of image and method.
Here was the French president, not yet in his forties, taking part in a tough question-and-answer session with his young audience, live and without a safety net.
Macron reassured his audience there was “no more Africa policy from France”. Nevertheless, his now famous speech in Ouagadougou clearly defined the major measures he intended to take under his five-year term.
“It’s a roadmap,” confirmed the Elysée. “Apart from Europe, there is no other area where the President has made his intentions clear in this way.”
The keynote speech, drafted with the help the members of the Presidential Council for Africa (CPA) — a dozen French and African civil society personalities — it aimed to mark a breakthrough and the beginning of a new era.
The objective: to build normalized relationships through official channels only.
Among the measures announced in Ouagadougou, considered by his entourage as “symbolic markers”, some were quickly adopted:
The French archives on the murder of Thomas Sankara, for example, have been transferred to the Burkinabe justice system, and the process of restitution of African cultural heritage items has been initiated, in particular with Benin.
Another strong marker was Paul Kagame’s rapprochement with Rwanda, notably through his support for Louise Mushikiwabo’s accession to the head of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) at the end of 2018.
For the rest, the guiding ideas of Macronian governance in Africa was to move away from the “crisis management” and focus on increased cooperation in traditional sectors, such as education, entrepreneurship, sustainable development, culture, and sport. But it is mainly in economic terms that Macron and his advisors determine their relations with their African partners.
This explains the interest given to the continent’s non-French-speaking heavyweights, such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia, which the President has visited since coming to power.
In the same vein, he will visit South Africa and Angola in May 2020. Each time, French entrepreneurs and investors accompany him to try to seize opportunities in the countries concerned. With varying degrees of success.
“There are persistent blockages,” says a source in the Palace. “The conversion of our economic operators’ view of Africa is not changing fast enough. We still have difficulty convincing them to come and develop new projects.”
As ambitious and well marketed as it was, the presidential speech on the change in Franco-African relations faces some unappealing realities.
Take the costly Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, where more than 4,000 French soldiers have been deployed since 2014. It is difficult to mention the end of Françafrique when Paris is conducting its largest external operation on the continent since those involved gained independence.
Or the French president’s statements on the birth rate in some African countries which created controversy in 2017. He is also regularly criticized for his migration policy towards the continent.
Two major events
The year 2020 will be pivotal for Macron’s African politics. Two major events take place at home — the France-Africa Summit in early June in Bordeaux, and the African Cultural Season, from June to December across France.
The summit is seen as an opportunity to welcome his African peers with great pomp and circumstance, but also a chance to interest his compatriots in the continent and its developments.
As with the Ouagadougou speech, the CPA will again be called upon to play a role in the preparation of these two events. The President is relying in particular on the diasporas, whom he sees as a vital channel for exchanges with Africa.
But beyond the great speeches and fine intentions, he may be confronted with what all his predecessors have known before him and which, in the end, will mark his record: his management of political crises in a French-speaking country.
Presidential elections are scheduled in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire in 2020, the outcomes of which are uncertain. No doubt they will be closely watched by the Elysée.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.