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President Macron: ‘Between France and Africa, it must be a love story’

By Benjamin Roger, Marwane Ben Yahmed
Posted on Friday, 20 November 2020 19:26, updated on Saturday, 21 November 2020 02:36

emmanuel macron
France’s President Emmanuel Macron on November 16, 2020 in Paris at the Elysee. (François Grivelet/ JA)

Image of France, caricatures of the Prophet, the Sahel, CFA franc, Sahara, democracy, colonisation, Ouattara, Condé, Kagame... Three years after the Ouagadougou speech, the French Head of State discusses at length to his assessment on the burning issues of the day.

It’s been just three years since Emmanuel Macron delivered his speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Arriving six months earlier at the Elysée Palace, the French head of state revealed, in front of a packed amphitheater, the outlines of the relationship he intended to weave with Africa.

He made a promise that had been repeated by all his predecessors since General de Gaulle: he was going to put an end to Françafrique, its troubled ties and obscure networks.

READ MORE France-Africa: Emmanuel Macron, from speech to action?

In terms of form, the change was radical. A French leader who was not yet in his forties confronted a young audience, live and without a filter, answering all questions, even the least diplomatic ones. Developed with the help of his Presidential Council for Africa (PCA), another original outcome of the Macron method, his speech announced a clear roadmap.

In addition to highly symbolic measures such as the restitution of African heritage, the transfer of French archives on the assassination of Thomas Sankara or the rapprochement with Rwanda, there was also talk of increasing cooperation in the sectors of education, entrepreneurship, sustainable development or culture. But it is especially on the economic level that the change was supposed to take place, especially vis-à-vis the non-French-speaking heavyweights of the continent, namely:  Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Angola or Ethiopia.

READ MORE Thomas Sankara: last moments, last witnesses, last secrets…

What about three years later? To assess the results of his action, Emmanuel Macron received us on 16 November, in his office at the Elysée Palace.

Like your predecessors, you have announced your desire to rebuild relations between France and Africa. Nearly three years after your speech in Ouagadougou, what has concretely changed?

President Emmanuel Macron: I have launched several projects. The first was a taboo: the restitution of African heritage. We have made very concrete gestures towards Senegal, Benin and Madagascar in particular.

But above all, a law was passed which, for the first time, allows not only the temporary transfer of a work but also its restitution, thanks to the profound intellectual, artistic and political work requested from Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr.

Contemporary African generations need to understand, to touch, to own their history, to reappropriate it. The Sarr-Savoy report was extremely ambitious, and it opened up many debates throughout Europe and the world. They have done a remarkable job, which has enabled us to move forward.

READ MORE Why France is dragging its feet to repatriate looted African artworks

The second was the end of the CFA franc. This important reform, concluded by an agreement signed during my last trip to Côte d’Ivoire, put an end to a very symbolic marker that fed a lot of fantasy and criticism. We also want to drive a new dynamic in the economic relationship that unites France and the continent, through the Digital Africa platform, but also thanks to the financing summit for Africa that we will organise in May in Paris.

Our diplomacy has not been confined to French-speaking Africa.

These are some very concrete examples of new measures, of taboos in the relationship between France and the African continent that we have lifted, whether they be of a memorable, economic, cultural or entrepreneurial nature. They embody what we want to put in place: an equitable relationship and a true partnership. The Africa 2020 season, skillfully carried by Commissioner General N’Goné Fall, is undoubtedly the best example of this.

At the same time, we have changed our method. Ouaga’s [Ouagadougou] speech was largely designed by the Presidential Council for Africa, which brings together people with very different profiles. We also did a lot of work with the diasporas and we went to countries that no French president had ever visited. Our diplomacy has not been confined to French-speaking Africa.

Will the Africa-France summit finally take place in the coming months?

It should take place in July 2021 in Montpellier and will illustrate this change of method. We are not going to organise a classic summit by inviting heads of state. Our aim is to highlight people who embody generational renewal, including at the political level. Because if there is one difficult point, it is democratic renewal. Some countries have complied with regular alternation, others have not.

Anti-French sentiment is growing in French-speaking countries. How do you explain this?

For decades, we have had a very institutional relationship with Africa, from the heads of state in office to well-established companies. In doing so, resentment has taken a certain amount of space.

But there is also a strategy at work, sometimes led by African leaders, but above all by foreign powers, such as Russia or Turkey, which play on post-colonial resentment. One should not be naive on this subject: many of those who give voice, who make videos, who are present in the French-speaking media are paid by Russia or Turkey.

READ MORE Turkey’s push to win over the Maghreb: The gateway to Africa

I think that between France and Africa, it must be a love story. Our country has been present on the continent both through triangular trade, conflicts from the early 19th century and then colonial wars. This history is there. We are its heirs. Have we been the actors? No. Has this history been recognised? Yes, even if there is still historiographical work in progress. But we must not remain prisoners of our past. That would be terrible.

I have always had a discussion of truth, fully assumed, with regards to this history. Wherever France has been present, it has mingled. It has also been the land of creolization, of crossbreeding, of mixed marriages. A country where human adventures were allowed. Others were present in a colonial form in Africa and never mixed. Like it or not, France has a part of Africa in her. Our destinies are linked.

Your recent remarks about the cartoons of the Prophet, in the name of defending freedom of expression, have provoked strong emotion in the Sahel and the Maghreb. Do you regret it?

I regret that my words have been distorted. I respect every religion. If you read my speeches, you will see that I have been consistent in this matter. But when I decided, at the beginning of my five-year term, to attack radical Islam, my words were distorted. By the Muslim Brotherhood, quite widely, but also by Turkey, who has a capacity to influence a lot of public opinion, including in sub-Saharan Africa.

READ MORE Caricatures of the prophet Muhammed: Africa enflamed by Macron’s hard line

I am not attacking Islam, I am attacking Islamist terrorism, knowing that more than 80% of the victims of Islamist terrorist attacks in the world are Muslims. When I paid tribute to Samuel Paty [assassinated on 16 October], I said that we will defend what is a right: the right to blasphemy and caricature on our soil. I did not say that I supported caricatures.

Furthermore, I invite you to ask yourself about the reaction of the international community on this subject: in January 2015, when Charlie Hebdo’s journalists were assassinated in the name of Allah, Muslim leaders came to parade in our streets. And today, when a professor is beheaded because he was teaching freedom of expression, we should apologise? The world is going crazy. I won’t give anything up to these people.

French military strategy in the Sahel and Operation Barkhane are increasingly criticised. Is a gradual withdrawal envisaged?

I say it again and again: Operation Barkhane was, after Serval, an explicit demand of the sovereign countries of the region. France is only there because Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso requested it, with the support of Chad and Mauritania – the five member states of the G5 Sahel.

READ MORE French ‘summons’ on Operation Barkhane raises hackles in Mali and Burkina Faso

Last January, in Pau, we reoriented things, affirming that our operational priorities were the Three Borders zone and the ISGS [Islamic State in the Greater Sahara]. This strategy has had results, as we have managed to weaken this group very strongly and neutralize several of its leaders. Until recently, we have conducted high-impact operations in the Tri-border area and further north in Mali.

READ MORE A grassroots response to the Sahel crisis

We have several objectives. First, we are truly refocusing on our enemies, the ISGS and strictly terrorist groups. Second, to quickly boost the power of the armies of the G5 Sahel. Finally, to internationalise our presence – which we are doing with the Takuba task force and what we have consistently done with our European partners.

In the coming months, I will have to make decisions on how to develop Barkhane. But I need a clear reiteration of our partners’ wish to see France remain at their side.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was overthrown last August. Do you think the new Malian authorities are up to the task?

Mali Transitional Government
Former Defense Minister and retired Col. Maj. Bah N’Daw, right, is sworn into the office of transitional president, and Col. Assimi Goita, left, head of the junta is sworn into the office of transitional vice president, at a ceremony in the capital Bamako, Mali, Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. (AP Photo)

It hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention: the transition underway is military, not democratic. Our role has been, in conjunction with African leaders, to do everything possible to keep it as short as possible with a commitment to elections. This is what has been recorded.

READ MORE Mali: Calls to boycott National Transitional Council grow louder

Mali now has a President, a Prime Minister and a transitional government, and deadlines that seemed acceptable to everyone. So I have no judgment to make. I simply note that the transitional authorities have reiterated their determination to fight terrorism effectively.

Is it necessary to negotiate peace with Iyad Ag Ghali and the jihadists in Mali, as called for by many people in the country?

It is necessary to be part of the clear roadmap that is the Algiers agreements. These provide for dialogue with different political and autonomist groups. But this does not mean dialogue with terrorist groups, who continue to kill civilians and soldiers, including our own. With terrorists, we do not discuss. We fight.

Of course, we know that the border between different groups is often porous. But to put it in a politically incorrect way: our military presence is not intended to combat all forms of trafficking in the region. That would be absurd.

Do you understand Presidents Issoufou and Déby when they say it’s normal for France to repair in the Sahel the pots it broke in Libya, which led to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011?

All those who intervened, including France, have a share of responsibility in the anomie that has reigned in Libya since 201. The situation in Libya has had an obvious impact on its neighbours. Trafficking in arms, human beings and drugs has been reinforced throughout the Sahel, and terrorists have taken advantage of this to obtain supplies and better organise themselves. But the Sahelian question cannot be reduced to the Libyan question.

“I am very lucid about the memory challenges I have before me, which are political. The Algerian war is undoubtedly the most dramatic of them,” you declared last January. Should France go further and apologise?

France, unilaterally and without response for decades, has made a lot of gestures on this issue. The issue is not to apologize. Moreover, the historian Benjamin Stora, who will hand over his work to me in December, does not advocate it. What is needed is to conduct historical work and to reconcile memories. We have to face history.

READ MORE France entrusts historian to highlight truth of Algerian war

For my part, I have continued to do this work of historical recognition, for example with the case of Maurice Audin. Basically, on the subject of the Algerian War, we have locked ourselves in a sort of pendulum between two postures: apology and repentance on the one hand, denial and pride on the other. I, for one, want to be in truth and reconciliation, and President Tebboune has expressed his willingness to do the same.

Arrests of Hirak activists, pressure on journalists, purges in the administration and the army … The Algeria of Abdelmadjid Tebboune does not seem to have broken with some old practices from the Bouteflika regime. Has he sufficiently quenched the Algerians’ thirst for change?

Abdelmadjid Tebboune at a press conference in Algiers, 24 November 2019.

I’ll tell you frankly: I will do everything in my power to help President Tebboune in this period of transition. He is courageous. You don’t change a country, institutions and power structures in a few months. There was a revolutionary movement, which is still there, in a different form. There is also a desire for stability, especially in the most rural part of Algeria. Everything must be done for this transition to succeed.

READ MORE Every Algerian president wants his own constitution, Dalia Ghanem

But there is an important time factor. There are also things that are not in our standards and that we would like to see evolve. Each time I have an honest discussion with the president, but I am never critical or in the posture of a lecturer. Algeria is a great country. Africa cannot succeed without Algeria succeeding.

The intervention of the Moroccan army against the Polisario, on 13 November in Guerguerate, raises fears of renewed tension between Rabat and Algiers. Like all French presidents, you are faced with a delicate balancing act between these two countries. How are you coping with it?

You should not approach this subject with the desire not to displease anyone. Morocco is a friendly country, and its King is a leader whom I trust and have a friendship with. We are aware of this conflict and its recent developments. We are also aware of Morocco’s willingness to re-engage in African dialogue and to integrate all instances despite the disagreements on this subject.

I am convinced that the various protagonists know that the only way out is political. I do not believe that what happened on November 13 is likely to change this issue in depth, but France is available to assist in a political discussion.

Alpha Condé, Alassane Ouattara… The constitutional changes allowing the lifting of the lock on the number of mandates of heads of state are multiplying. What do you say to your counterparts who use such moves to stay in power?

France does not have to give lessons. Our role is to appeal to the interest and strength of the democratic model in an increasingly young continent. It is in Africa’s interest to build rules, ways and means to have regular and transparent democratic meetings.

Alternation allows breathing. It is also the best way to allow inclusion in political life and to fight corruption, which is the counterpart of a too long retention of power. These are not lessons, they are common sense.

READ MORE African presidents extending terms: ‘Let’s express our disapproval loud and clear’

Afterwards, it is not for me to say: “The constitution must provide for x or y mandates. I remind you that France itself, until twelve years ago, did not have a limit on the number of terms of office in its Constitution.

But in France, there has been no change in the rules of the game along the way to stay in power?

That’s right. Coming back to the two particular cases you mention, I’ll tell you what I think in all honesty. I do not put the case of Guinea and that of Côte d’Ivoire in the same category.

READ MORE Guinea: Condé’s victory met with a mix of satisfaction and protest

I have had several discussions with President Alpha Condé – very frank discussions, including on 15 August 2019, when he was in France. President Condé has an opponent’s career that would justify that he organise himself a form of succession.  And of course, he organised a referendum and a change in the constitution just to keep himself in power. That’s why I haven’t yet sent him a congratulatory letter. I think that the situation is serious in Guinea, for its youth, for its democratic vitality and for its progress.

How would the recent re-election of Alassane Ouattara to a third term, also thanks to a change in the Constitution, be any different?

President Ouattara made it clear in March that he would not serve a third term. I greeted him immediately. A candidate had been nominated to succeed him: the Prime Minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly. But a few weeks before the deadline, he found himself in an exceptional situation with the death of the latter. I can tell you, sincerely, that he did not want to run for a third term.

Did you try to dissuade him from doing so?

We had a very frank discussion in September, when he came here. Everybody took note of the long one-on-one lunch we had. I told him what I thought and I heard his arguments and his concern for the stability of the country. He felt it was his duty to go and that he could not postpone the election.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire/France: Ouattara refuses Macron’s request to delay polls

We continued to have discussions during the campaign, then on the night of the first round and most recently on 14 November. It is now his responsibility to work for reconciliation, to make efforts between now and the legislative elections, to pacify his country. He is fully aware of the current tensions that have caused the deaths of more than 80 people.

ouattara macron
Presidents Alassane Ouattara Emmanuel Macron, on 4 September at the Elysée palace in Paris. © Presidency of the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire

He must also succeed in reconciling himself with the major figures of Ivorian politics. The initiatives taken with respect to Henri Konan Bédié are, in this regard, important, as are the gestures towards Laurent Gbagbo. But in any case, a generational renewal will have to be encouraged.

The situation remains tense. Apart from resuming dialogue with Bédié and taking steps towards Laurent Gbagbo, what else can he do?

These are already two very important points. It will then be up to President Ouattara to define the terms of a peaceful political life. He will undoubtedly have to make gestures of openness in the composition of the next government as well as towards the younger generation of political parties. In a country where more than 60% of the population is less than 35 years old, would it not be a good idea for the next president to be less than 70 years old?

Did he seem receptive to you?

Absolutely. He himself was reluctant to introduce an age limit in the Constitution. I’m telling you: I really think that he presented himself out of duty. In absolute terms, I would have preferred there to have been another solution, but there wasn’t one.

There is an Ivorian politician who is less than 70 years old and who does not hide his ambitions, it is Guillaume Soro. After the announcement of Ouattara’s re-election, he called, from France, for the Ivorian armed forces to overthrow him .

I think he’s no longer in France to talk about it. He doesn’t have to create disorder and his presence is not desired, on our territory, as long as he behaves in this way.

Have you asked him to leave the country?

Not me directly, but we do not want him to carry out destabilising actions from French soil.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Guillaume Soro calls on army to block Alassane Ouattara

As much as we can welcome freedom fighters and any person who is threatened in his home country, we do not have the vocation to protect activists who seek to destabilise a country.

More broadly, how do you view the life of democracy in Africa?

There is a renewal in all fields of civil life on the continent: sport, culture, economy… Where there is a relative failure of generation renewal is in politics.

Is it a question of age or longevity in power?

First of all, there are habits that need to be changed. That’s why we need role models: Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed is one, Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo too. It’s important to show that you can be under 65 and become president. Or that one can leave power without any problem, like the Nigeria’s Mahamadou Issoufou.

READ MORE The rise of Africa’s new ‘old men’

The main point behind all this is the status of former presidents. One of the things the AU needs to address is to reassure leaders by explaining what they will become when they are no longer in power. Many of those who are working on this are basically in a kind of panic that they will no longer be able to stay in their country, that they will no longer have status, or that they or their families will be in legal trouble.

The conflict continues in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon and opposition is regularly repressed, with Maurice Kamto bearing the brunt. A year ago, you stated that you wanted to “put maximum pressure on Paul Biya”. What can France do?

And that is what I did, and, I will remind you, that for a very long time President Biya did not come on an official visit to France. We had been in contact by telephone, but I had asked him for some gestures of confidence before his visit to Lyon in October 2019. He made them a year ago.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his Cameroonian counterpart Paul Biya
French President Emmanuel Macron and his Cameroonian counterpart Paul Biya – November 2019. Cameroonian Presidency

The situation has once again become tense and I invite President Biya to make gestures of openness. He, too, must prepare for renewal and pacify his country, especially since he has another much greater challenge: the advance of Boko Haram. He must reengage his country as much as possible in the fight against terrorism alongside Nigeria and especially Chad, which bears much of the burden, sometimes alone.

You have become closer to Paul Kagame. Does the definitive normalisation of relations with Rwanda require a recognition of France’s role during the Tutsi genocide in 1994? Is the Duclert Commission, which is even more controversial since the resignation of historian Julie d’Andurain, still legitimate?

I think that Vincent Duclert is perfectly legitimate. He is a great historian, recognized for his work. I have seen the nature of the controversy and it does not seem to me to taint his academic legitimacy in any way. For the first time, this commission allows access to the French archives of the 1990-1994 period. It is therefore an unprecedented and indispensable historical work.

READ MORE Kagame: “On Judgement Day, I will get better marks than those who criticise us over human rights”

But this does not in any way condition our relationship with Rwanda. We owe it to ourselves to look at our past in its entirety, without any desire to conceal or self-flagellate. I also salute the involvement of President Kagame, who has greatly pacified Rwandan political discourse towards France in recent years.

Are you planning a trip to Kigali?

I was initially planning trips to Angola and South Africa, which were postponed due to health constraints. I hope to be able to go there in the coming weeks. And go to Rwanda in 2021.

You have gone further than your predecessors in calling French colonisation a crime against humanity. How can we put an end to this painful past and finally rebuild a peaceful relationship with the new generations of Africans?

To build a peaceful relationship with the new generations, there must be no taboos. Taboos feed a form of paranoia and a very strong resentment against France. Today, there are foreign regimes and politico-religious projects that use the colonial fact as one of the levers against France, even within generations that have never known colonialism.

We need to look this period of history in the face, without complexes but with a concern for truth, so as not to give these people a grain to grind. Let’s not hide anything and let’s move forward.

If we want to change the way Africa looks at France, if we want to succeed economically, culturally in Africa, a continent that is our future, our diasporas are an opportunity. It is a reality.

So if we succeed in establishing this relationship uncomplicated with history, if we manage to be much stronger in a policy of equal opportunity and the fight against discrimination, and if we make our diasporas the spearhead of international ambition, whether cultural, economic or otherwise, I think we will have a better chance that the youth of our country will be happy. We lock ourselves in the past when we are unhappy in the present.

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