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Why Macron's crusade to renew France's role in Africa failed

The French president promised decisive improvements in Franco-African relations. But his misunderstandings of the stakes involved and the methods needed have meant total failure
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during the plenary session of the "Africa-France" Summit gathering on 8 October, 2021 (AFP)

The promises sounded great, sometimes generous, bordering on naive. But with time, they shattered on the implacable reality of a France-Africa relationship that proves difficult to transform.

And so it was that at the end of his first term, President Emmanuel Macron, who had promised definitive upheavals in Franco-African relations, had to content himself with very conventional relations with his main partners, who were reluctant to let themselves be carried away by the ephemeral enthusiasm of a head of state who was mistaken as much about the stakes as about the method.

France is forced to admit that it no longer has the means of its ambitions, and that it is losing ground even in its traditional sphere of influence

The return to the starting point is all the more painful for Macron as it occurs in a situation in which France is forced to admit that it no longer has the means of its ambitions, and that it is losing ground even in its traditional sphere of influence.

At the start of 2023, countries long considered part of the French backyard of Françafrique, Mali and Burkina-Faso, fought back, inflicting a new affront on Macron by expelling the French ambassadors in Bamako and Ouagadougou. What were the reasons for these decisions, just the latest in a long series of setbacks for French diplomacy in Africa?

A few weeks earlier, two eminent French ministers, the head of diplomacy, Catherine Colonna, and the interior minister, Gerard Darmanin, had travelled to Rabat and Algiers to restore "normal" consular relations after a year of disputes.

The crisis had been triggered by a French decision to drastically reduce the number of visas granted to Maghrebis to try to force these countries to take back their nationals pending illegal deportation from France. But the measure was lifted, virtually without anything back in return.

Badly thought out and implemented in a cavalier way, the measure was supposed to target the nomenklatura of the countries concerned, but it turned out to be without significant impact, and was even counterproductive. The episode also revealed that those who suggested this type of decision entertained a caricatured vision of the Algerian decision-making process: to think that it is possible to put pressure on Algerian leaders through visas is absurd.

Hopeful promises

However, before such failures, Macron, then presidential candidate, had made hopeful promises. He spoke of a new partnership, of the end of Françafrique, of a common future to be charted for both sides of the Mediterranean, and of a future to be offered to the youth of Africa, to spare them the perilous adventure of clandestine migration.

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But for this to happen, it was necessary to invest massively in Africa, to train, to dare to explore new paths.

Macron insisted on being the initiator of this new course by establishing what he considered to be a direct dialogue with these societies, through their youth, their civil societies, their artists, their intellectuals, their public opinions and their elites.

A few highly publicised stages and moments have dotted this route. In Burkina Faso, in November 2017, six months after his first presidential victory, Macron had descended into an arena of students to debate face-to-face at the university, with very upset interlocutors. He accepted sometimes bitter criticism but did not mince his words.

Thus, when asked about visas, he replied to an applicant for emigration that it was more legitimate for him to think about building his future in his country rather than thinking about exile.

A few days later, he repeated the same exercise in Ghana, affirming that "Europe must have a policy of cooperation so that a young African can tell himself that he is going to succeed in his own country", rather than dreaming of a “European El Dorado”.

Apart from a fake discourse on democracy and human rights, France does not hesitate to deal with regimes that do not meet democratic criteria

The speech was courageous and daring. But Macron had neither the means, nor the instruments, nor the partners to carry out these projects. Moreover, Macron's speech revealed a denial of reality that is difficult to understand at his level of responsibility.

In terms of security in the Sahel, for example, Macron highlighted the French efforts of Operation Barkhane to counter jihadists in the region. But concretely, the jihadist surge was largely the consequence of the destruction of the Libyan state following the 2011 Nato intervention, in which the France of Nicolas Sarkozy played a central role.

Previously, the countries of the region had suffered a century of colonisation followed by half a century of Françafrique. What benefit did they derive from it? Some of them - Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Central African Republic - still sit high on the lists of the poorest countries in the world.

With such a disastrous past, what interest do they have in remaining under the supposed protection of France? Especially since, apart from a fake discourse on democracy and human rights, France, including under Macron, does not hesitate to deal with regimes that do not meet democratic criteria (Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, etc).

Two audiences

In addition to his own contradictions, Macron has come up against pitfalls, both internal and external, that he did not suspect. There is the hostility of the powers in place, who can no longer accept the attempts of a foreign leader to address directly their public opinion by bypassing the government and its institutions.

Some countries have nevertheless agreed to play that game. Macron then found himself confronted with two types of public. The first, conquered, was composed of Francophile circles - business circles with vested interests, and visa applicants.

The French head of state seems to have been seduced by intellectuals and activists with a strong presence in the media world

The other, the most numerous, was sceptical and even hostile. That second audience found its critical expression in the recriminations of nationalist, Africanist, pan-Arabist or Islamist movements or milieux, sometimes openly anti-French and very widespread in those societies.

The appearance of new Africanist circles navigating between radicalism and populism, such as that embodied by the Franco-Beninese Kemi Seba, the president of the NGO Urgences Panafricanistes, further complicates the picture.

How can we explain this series of errors of appreciation and lack of foresight on the part of Macron? The French head of state seems to have been seduced by intellectuals and activists with a strong presence in the media world.

Emmanuel Macron speaking at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 28 November 2017 (AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron speaking at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on 28 November 2017 (AFP)

He also entrusted one of them, Achille Mbembe, with a daring initiative: a meeting with African "elites" to circumvent the traditional Franco-African summits. But that approach had no impact. Macron managed to attract the sympathy of some circles of renowned intellectuals but those with no political or social anchoring and utterly unrepresentative of their societies.

The real legacy

More down-to-earth, Macron also found himself confronted with the reluctance, even hostility, of a traditional French diplomacy embodied by the Quai d'Orsay.

French diplomacy is indeed more sensitive to the real interests of France, including economic interests, than it is to moral principles and noble causes. This implies that France must develop and maintain a rapport with foreign leaders who hardly accept the democratic canons praised by Macron himself, leaders who must be spared in order, for example, to preserve the French presence in Chad or a French nuclear industry that relies on uranium from Niger.

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This erroneous perception of African realities pushed the French head of state to look for scapegoats to explain his setbacks in Africa. He thus ended up developing a kind of fixation, even a phobia, about the Chinese, Russian and Turkish presence in Africa.

Relayed by most of the French media, Macron's speeches repetitively warn against the plundering of Africa by China, the attempt at Russian hegemony, or even the negative influence of Turkey.

A futile and pitiful discourse in the face of reality: has there been a more intense looting of West Africa than that of colonial and neo-colonial France, a more destructive hegemony than the French hegemony, a more harmful influence than that of France?

Even the discourse on the danger of the presence of troops from the Russian Wagner group is totally ineffective. Historically, the French army remains the foreign military force from which Africa has suffered the most.

Brandishing a virtual Russian threat cannot hide the real legacy of the past. This is why Macron has failed.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article has been translated and condensed from the MEE French edition.

Abed Charef est un écrivain et chroniqueur algérien. Il a notamment dirigé l’hebdomadaire La Nation et écrit plusieurs essais, dont Algérie, le grand dérapage. Vous pouvez le suivre sur Twitter : @AbedCharef
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