In a 2017 speech at the University of Ouagadougou in the African state of Burkina Faso, Emmanuel Macron declared the end of what has become known as “Françafrique”, the French strategy of exerting military, political and commercial influence over its former colonies on the continent.
“I haven’t come here to tell you what France’s Africa policy is, as others have done,” the French president, elected just six months earlier, declared, “because France no longer has an Africa policy!” He went on to announce a €1bn fund for innovative small companies and an eye-catching pledge to return looted African works of art to their original homes.
He was not the first French president to announce a new chapter in his country’s intimate and often tortured relationships with its former fiefdoms in Africa. But Mr Macron, then 39, argued passionately that he was the man to break from the murky system of the past because he was too young to have known a time when African countries were still European colonies.
Yet three years on, Mr Macron’s attempt at a reset appears to many to have run into the sand, leaving French troops bogged down in a war against Islamist terror in the Sahel and its diplomats embroiled in the fractious politics of several resource-rich former colonial territories such as Guinea and Mali.
In Ivory Coast, once the jewel in the crown of France’s west African lands, Mr Macron has been accused of meddling in politics ahead of Saturday’s election in which Alassane Ouattara is seeking a controversial third term — even though French officials say the extent of their involvement has been to warn against the constitutionally dubious additional term in office and to recommend a delay in the meantime to avert the threat of violence.
With tensions running high ahead of the vote, and 20,000 French people living in the country, France is watching events in Ivory Coast nervously.
Such problems threaten to overshadow signs of progress in Mr Macron’s drive to leave behind the colonial baggage of the past: this month, the French National Assembly passed a law to return 27 works of art to Benin and Senegal from two Paris museums within a year, fulfilling part of Mr Macron’s promise on looted heritage. He and his ministers have also made progress in courting non-francophone countries outside the traditional Paris sphere of influence such as Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia — winning some big infrastructure contracts along the way.
Mr Macron’s change of direction has not been convincing for some African observers. “Françafrique is very much alive and this is why people think Macron has not changed anything apart from the discourse,” says Abdoulaye Bathily, a Senegalese opposition politician who dismisses Mr Ouattara and Macky Sall, the president of Senegal — which is seen as a reliable ally — as “France’s errand boys”.
“There is more resentment against the French today than before,” he adds, “because of the security issue in the Sahel.”
Mr Bathily’s comment points to the two daunting obstacles in the way of Mr Macron’s ambitions to modernise France’s diplomacy and trade in the region — where it competes with old rivals such as the UK and newer ones such as China, Russia and Turkey — and to improve its image among Africa’s young and fast-growing populations.
The first is the intensifying security mission in the Sahel, labelled “France’s Afghanistan” by some commentators — to the annoyance of Mr Macron’s advisers. More than 5,000 French troops are engaged in the country’s biggest conflict since the Algerian independence war during the presidency of Charles de Gaulle.
Operation Barkhane stretches 4,000km from the Atlantic coast across Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad and is tasked with fighting al-Qaeda and Isis in the semi-desert south of the Sahara.
Mr Macron insists the struggle is essential to keep Islamist terror from Europe, but the operation is hamstrung by numerous problems. French officials privately bemoan the corruption and poor governance in countries such as Burkina Faso, while in the Sahel critics of France accuse Paris of a heavy-handed, paternalistic style of leadership. Even the five governments that are part of the operation are sometimes ambivalent about the presence of French troops on African soil. Instability in Libya to the north after the western intervention that helped overthrow Muammer Gaddafi in 2011 is another factor. Most of France’s European allies are also reluctant to commit resources to the Sahel conflict.
The latest blow to Mr Macron in the region came when the Malian army overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita — a French ally, if not a greatly respected one — in a coup d’état in August. Mr Macron has called for a swift return to civilian government. In Mali alone about 4,000 people were killed last year in fighting involving ethnic militias and groups linked to al-Qaeda and Isis. Paris says Mali should not negotiate with jihadist groups, despite widespread support for the idea among Malians weary of violence. Faced with security threats and the coronavirus pandemic, Mali and the other Sahel states are so poor that the UN says 13m people now need urgent help.
François Gaulme of Ifri, the French Institute of International Relations, says Mr Macron’s decision to send hundreds more troops to shore up Operation Barkhane underlines what he sees as a dangerous shift in Françafrique’s emphasis from the business to the military sphere.
“France is very good at sending troops to Africa, but not at sending investors,” says Mr Gaulme. “One of Macron’s themes was ‘colonialism is finished’ and ‘I was born after colonialism’. Except that he’s cornered by the postcolonial relationship.”
The determination of some of the “old elephants” ruling former colonies to remain in power whatever the cost is another problem for Mr Macron in trying to redefine Françafrique. The objections emanating from their own populations or French officials seem to be having little effect on these strongmen.
Mr Macron discreetly hosted the 78-year-old Mr Ouattara — elected and installed as Ivory Coast president a decade ago with the support of French troops who helped oust his rival, Laurent Gbagbo — for a lunch at the Elysée in September. But he failed to persuade Mr Ouattara to postpone the election.
France is home to an African diaspora of millions from the north, west and centre of the continent, while Paris remains a focal point for the francophone African elite. Guillaume Soro, a former Ivorian rebel leader and Mr Ouattara’s one-time prime minister, used the Versailles room of the luxury Le Bristol hotel near the Elysée in September to denounce his former boss and declare that the election would not be held on schedule because he had been wrongly disqualified. Mr Soro was sentenced to 20 years in absentia in April for embezzlement.
“Ivory Coast is on the edge of the abyss,” he said at the event. At least seven people have already died in election-related clashes in the country, which was run by the Francophile Félix Houphouët-Boigny from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993.
Ivory Coast and Mali are not the only former French colonies that have tested Mr Macron’s attempts at renewal. In Guinea, the 82-year-old President Alpha Condé was another leader who rewrote the constitution in order to run for a third term. He has been declared the winner of the election after the first round on October 18 amid allegations of fraud and violent clashes between opposition supporters and the security forces. In Togo, Faure Gnassingbé, the latest scion of a dynasty that has ruled for more than 50 years, is confronted with a rival government in exile after yet another contested election.
“For three years we’ve pushed this [new Africa policy]. It’s unfinished business but at least we are changing perceptions,” says a senior French official close to Mr Macron. “But it’s difficult when you have news about terrorism, military coups, presidents getting their third terms and dictators who don’t want to go.”
Seen from Paris, if not towns and cities across the continent, France’s relationship with Africa has clearly moved on from the old Françafrique. After the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940, de Gaulle fled to London but Brazzaville in French Congo became the Free French capital. In the rapid decolonisation that followed the war, de Gaulle, through Jacques Foccart, who ran the “Africa cell” at the Elysée, maintained close military and political ties with France’s ex-colonies. So did his successors. Under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, France provided funding for the lavish coronation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa as Central African emperor in 1977, only to send in its troops to overthrow him and install his cousin two years later.
“No [French] president has wanted to let go of his reserved African domain, the veritable DNA of the presidency under the Fifth Republic,” wrote Pascal Airault and Jean-Pierre Bat in Françafrique: Secret Operations and Affairs of State.
Yet the mood has gradually changed. At a time when many young Africans are vocally opposed to any hint of neocolonialism, it is hard to imagine an African leader repeating the mantra of mutual dependency chanted by Omar Bongo of Gabon in 1996: “Africa without France is a car without a driver. France without Africa is a car without fuel.”
Momar Nguer, a Total executive and head of Africa for the French employers’ federation Medef, says many young Africans are as likely to be annoyed about hostile European attitudes to African migrants as about a colonial period they never experienced.
“You have a French president born after independence and in Africa more and more of the heads of state were also born after independence,” Mr Nguer says. “The relationship between the two sides is now much more frank and direct. There are less legacy problems, less guilt.”
Finding new partners
Mr Macron can point to recent achievements. They include easing anti-colonial tensions over the region’s currency, the CFA (African Financial Community) franc. He stood next to Mr Ouattara in Abidjan a year ago and announced the end of the CFA franc used by eight west African nations.
In the end, that disengagement process has stalled, partly because of a dispute over the “eco”, the name of the proposed replacement currency, and partly because some CFA franc countries worry about instability if the link to the euro is weakened. But France did make two important symbolic changes, dropping the requirement that half of the currency’s reserves be kept in Paris and giving up its representation on the regional central bank.
Mr Macron has also repaired France’s relationship with Rwanda and its influential president, Paul Kagame — although that brings its own diplomatic problems because of the Rwandan leader’s authoritarian reputation.
Rwanda had ditched the French language for English, demolished the French cultural centre in Kigali and joined the Commonwealth, the group linking the UK with most of its former colonies. But Mr Macron has courted Mr Kagame by releasing files on France’s alleged involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and championing the Rwandan Louise Mushikiwabo for the post of secretary-general of the International Organisation of Francophonie, an 88-member body linking countries where French is spoken — most of them former colonies — and akin to the Commonwealth.
Mr Macron, says Ms Mushikiwabo, “is genuinely interested in turning the page on the kind of relationship France has had with Africa”, although she adds a warning: “A president alone is not enough. I am not sure who else in the French system is around him. Some bad habits die hard.”
The president’s drive to diversify France’s commercial interests in Africa away from its traditional and relatively small francophone markets is another initiative that appears to be bearing fruit.
“It’s a new stage in the relationship between France and the different countries of Africa,” says Franck Riester, international trade minister. “It’s not about forgetting or denying a common history [with the francophone states] but about working with countries that are potential partners for the future, whatever their history with us.”
A report last year for the French foreign and finance ministries on relaunching the country’s economic presence in Africa pointed out that France’s market share of the continent’s trade had halved to 5.5 per cent between 2000 and 2017 — French exports more than doubled to an annual $28bn, but the market had quadrupled in the meantime — in the face of competition from China and other rivals.
Since then, France has announced a series of deals outside its old hunting grounds, including more than €2bn of transport infrastructure contracts in Kenya and a contract for France’s Axens to help build a new oil refinery in Nigeria with a capacity of 200,000 barrels a day. Total is one of several foreign companies combining to invest up to $50bn in liquefied natural gas projects in Mozambique and has signed a security deal to help the government protect energy facilities in the former Portuguese colony.
Despite these signs of diversification, Mr Macron is struggling to shake off the impression that the new Françafrique is little more than a rebranding exercise. His administration and the ones that follow are likely to face continued security threats and political disputes in France’s former colonies that, notwithstanding its best efforts, are beyond the control of the long arm of Paris.
France’s domestic crackdown on radical Islamism following the murder of a teacher in Paris has led to a boycott of French goods in some Middle East countries; Paris will be hoping African countries with sizeable Muslim populations do not go down the same route.
“France is in an impasse whatever it does.” says Caroline Roussy, an Africa researcher at Iris, the Institute of International and Strategic Relations. She says Mr Macron’s new approaches to dealing with prickly African leaders have not always succeeded and a smarter strategy will be needed.
“He comes up against his own personality and the realities he can’t manage . . . At some point we have to end this unhealthy France-Africa relationship.”
Additional reporting by David Keohane in Paris