Ever since the French state became aware of its middle power status, its foreign policy, particularly concerning Africa, has consisted of bringing together and keeping within its sphere a coalition of small states whose interests it claims to defend against the behemoths of the world.
Through this strategy, France hopes to maintain its influence and slow the process of decline which with each passing day appears to be increasingly inevitable.
France: a buffer state
Already back in 1966, during his famous speech made in Phnom Penh against US intervention in Vietnam, General Charles de Gaulle expressed this ambition of making France a buffer state between the large and small powers.
Dominique de Villepin, on behalf of Jacques Chirac, perpetuated the idea in 2003 in his famous speech given before the United Nations Security Council in opposition to the war in Iraq.
In recent days, this calling has taken the form of Emmanuel Macron’s show of activism alongside African leaders who are concerned about the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis. It is also illustrated by a recently published diplomatic note from the Centre for Analysis, Planning and Strategy (CAPS), a sort of in-house think tank at the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs.
Entitled “The pangolin effect: is a storm brewing in Africa?”, the note, written in an apocalyptic tone, warns of the vulnerability of African states confronted with COVID-19, suggesting there is “a risk of long-term destabilisation”, and puts forward several actions France could take to manage the “crisis in Africa”.
Note of concern
Widely disseminated, the note’s content irked many Africans.
It’s true that after having permanently annihilated the idea of the absolute superiority of the Western model, we might have hoped that the coronavirus would free us, at least for a certain time, from this fruitless one-on-one between a desperately paternalistic France and a desperately sleeping Africa. What a fail.
Essentially, the note seems to confirm the inability of French strategists, even as the coronavirus crisis marks the end of an era, to reinvent a new relationship with the continent.
“Blood, toil, tears and sweat”
Of course, in the short and long run, and on this point the CAPS strategists are right, the continent needs to get ready for “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, to use Winston Churchill’s expression.
Yes, the formal sector, already fragile in most of our countries, will take a beating, and the informal sector, being highly dependent on the formal sector, will suffer from it. Yes, already fragile states run a greater risk of collapse. And so, yes, unfortunately, we need to brace ourselves for all forms of chaos imaginable.
But the real question, which does not seem to interest the CAPS analysts, is a long-term one. After the designated “religious authorities” and “popular artists” have helped Paris put out the social fires in Africa, and the coronavirus has buried the world as we know it, what kind of strategic position will the continent find itself in?
Owing to the deep-seated powerlessness of African countries resulting from our historical defeats and our contemporary failures, the continent’s would-be recovery depends on three factors: an upheaval of the global order so significant that it calls into question, in a manner less disadvantageous to Africa, the international balance of powers; the decline of Western powers (particularly France with regard to Francophone Africa); and the simultaneous emergence in Africa of a generation of capable leaders.
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I had gotten used to the idea that this highly improbable combination of factors would never come to pass in my lifetime. Yet, even if nothing is ever certain, the coronavirus crisis, whose impact on the world will in all likelihood be similar to that of a war, should accelerate the demotion of an ageing, indolent and ineffective Western civilisation.
China – which has yet to put the coronavirus crisis behind it, but has nevertheless managed to restore a normal pace of activity – has confirmed that it possesses the ambition, capacity and resources to fashion a new global order.
At a time when a major economic crisis seems to be looming in the United States, the phenomenal upturn in industrial activity in China in March, in comparison with the sharp fall in February, indicates that China could find itself in the same position the United States occupied at the end of World War II.
A middle class forced to take on a direct role in politics
As for Africa, the shock on the horizon is unusual in that it will impact the small middle class of young educated Africans with full force. In the pre-coronavirus world, which offered openness and mobility, Africa’s middle class was able to successfully shield itself from bad governments ruining the lives of the poorest citizens.
The world currently unfolding will be less advantageous.
To avoid losing its position in a hostile and closed-off international order, the African middle class could end up being forced to take on a direct role in politics, in a world which, given Africa’s demographic weight, will have to come to terms with the continent.
The reality is that in this global landscape undergoing major change, Francophone Africa would be mistaken to, as Churchill supposedly said, “let a good crisis go to waste”. This opportunity to write a new chapter in Franco-African relations is too good to miss out on.
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