In Africa, France’s image takes a hit, but Turkey, Qatar and the UAE’s are on the up

By Olivier Marbot, Marie Toulemonde
Posted on Thursday, 8 April 2021 19:37

A Turkish Airlines plane carrying medical aid packages sent by Turkey to support Sudan in the fight against Covid-19, 22 August 2020 © Mahmoud Hjaj / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Conducted each year among African “opinion leaders”, the Africaleads 2021 survey confirms that France continues to lose ground. On the other hand, Turkey and the Gulf countries are steadily rising in popularity.

“We have a problem. France is very present in Africa, we have a long-standing relationship which is simultaneously sentimental, cultural, military, economic, diplomatic … We are one of the leading countries in terms of development aid, the companies we represent achieve €60bn in turnover in Africa, and yet our image is deteriorating every year. We should seriously ask ourselves why.”

Etienne Giros, deputy president of the Conseil Français des Investisseurs en Afrique (CIAN) [French Council of Investors in Africa], does not hide his bitterness. It was he who commissioned the IMMAR research institute to carry out the third edition of its Africaleads opinion poll, the results of which were officially presented at the Africa Forum on 18 March.

France is going backwards

Since 2018, more than 2,400 “opinion leaders” from over 12 African countries – which represent half of the continent’s population – have been questioned on the situation of the continent itself, the image they have of the main foreign countries present on it and also to designate which of these countries are the most “beneficial” partners.

The list of people interviewed include politicians, business leaders, artists, intellectuals, athletes and religious leaders. About a third are women. And because CIAN brings together companies based in France, this country’s image is particularly scrutinised. The conclusion is clear: France is going backwards.

In the first edition of the poll, which was held in 2019, it was ranked 5th with 21% of interviewees citing it as one of the countries with the best image. In 2020, it fell to 6th place, was overtaken by the UK and dropped to 20%. This year, it has dropped down to 7th place (Japan has moved up in the rankings) and fell to 17%. France is now just ahead of Turkey, which is at 15%.

Positions remain stable at the top of the ranking. The US leads, as it does every year, followed by Germany, Canada, the UK and China. “The United States is emerging from a turbulent period,” says Giros. “There was the Black Lives Matter movement, we saw President Donald Trump insulting African countries, but nothing changed: American soft power is so powerful that the country’s image does not suffer.”

On this particular point, North Africa is the only region that does not favour the US, which it only ranked 5th, and has graded Japan and Turkey higher than the rest of the continent. As for Canada’s high approval rating, one can only assume that it has something to do with the large number of young Africans who go to study there.

China, a beneficial partner

The other interesting ranking is that of the continent’s “most beneficial partners.” This time, as in previous years, China comes out on top at 76%. The country’s image may have suffered, notably from the Covid-19 crisis, but when it comes to identifying the most active partners, it nevertheless retains its 1st place ranking. France, on the other hand, falls to 9th place, outranked by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and tied with India and Qatar.

Turkey and the Arab-Persian Gulf countries’ rise through the ranks is the most spectacular new feature of this 2021 poll. “This reflects their strong presence in certain areas of activity such as public works and transport,” says Giros. “When you ask African opinion leaders how they travel, they all mention Turkish Airlines which is constantly announcing new flights to the continent. As for the Emirates, they have a lot of money and finance a lot of projects, especially in Muslim countries.”

The only question that remains, which is particularly thorny for the CIAN, is that of France’s poor position in the two main rankings. “I think that we should really ask ourselves about the need to renew the narrative that reflects our relationship with the continent,” says Giros. “The President of the Republic is trying, the government is trying, the Conseil Présidentiel pour l’Afrique is trying… Emmanuel Macron is very aware of all this and has taken initiatives that, on paper, seem very positive. But we can see that they haven’t worked. We remain in a form of ‘I love you, I love you not’…”

A sanctioned proximity?

How can this continuous decline be explained? The CIAN president has a few thoughts: “France is very present, its proximity to Africa is obvious, and yet in the end we have the impression that this proximity is sanctioned by a bad grade. I see several possible explanations. First of all, it is precisely because we are very present: when you occupy 30 or 40% of a market, it is easier to fall than to progress. There are also our debates on history, on colonisation, which are very closely followed in Africa and in the diaspora. Our country is also going through a difficult period: there have been the Gilets Jaunes protests, the complicated management of the Covid-19 crisis…”

He concludes: “The opinion leaders we interviewed get a lot of information via French-language media, which provides extensive coverage of this news, so they are very aware of our difficulties. On the other hand, I don’t think they have a very precise opinion on, for example, the management of Covid-19 in Japan, the country that is ahead of us in this ranking.”

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