Emmanuel Macron begins a three-day tour of Africa Tuesday which will take him to Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and Ghana. The French leader wants to redefine his country’s waning relationship with the continent. Will he succeed?
Emmanuel Macron promised a fresh start. On Tuesday, he will begin his November 28-30th Africa tour not in Senegal like his predecessors, but in Burkina Faso, a country with a proud tradition of independence. During his first speech, he will lay out his Africa policy, not to the country’s politicians or intelligentsia but its youth: 800 students at the University of Ouagadougou, from whom he will take questions afterwards.
A difficult exercise
Macron has said he wants to end France’s grip over its former colonies and its dubious policy of ‘Francafrique’, in which it operated a system of networks to serve its own interests, often propping up African dictators in the process.
“There have been many promises made about renewing our relationship with Africa. We are not the first ones to want to do this,” said a government source. “That is why this exercise is difficult, and it may be received with a certain amount of skepticism by the public.”
Aware that his critics will be weighing his every word, the French president and his team have been preparing this meeting for several weeks.
“We are aware that France is not necessarily going to be greeted with open arms everywhere in Africa and that its influence is flagging, especially in front of the youth,” a source close to the president explained. “This is why the president wanted to address the students of this country – Burkino Faso – where there was a democratic transition in 2015 and where young people are politicised. It will be important to be humble in front of an audience that does not necessarily have a good image of France.”
Phasing out the CFA franc
Since his election six months ago, Macron has made a few nods to Africa. His first overseas trip was to Mali, where 4,000 French troops have been deployed to fight Islamist groups. He has apologised for some aspects of France’s colonial past and called for the gradual phasing out of the CFA franc – a currency pegged to the Euro used in 14 African countries which some see as a guarantor of stability but which others criticise for being a relic of colonialism.
Making true on a campaign promise, he set up a special council on Africa (CPA) this summer made up of young business people with ties to both France and Africa. These special advisors have been meeting up once a week since August to advise him on how to bolster France’s image on the continent.
These counsels will be part of the French delegation following Macron this week.
“They will observe how the speech is received on Tuesday, and over the next few months, they will take part in the implementation of the pledges that Macron will make. Following up on the speech is for us just as important as the speech itself,” French government sources said.
First French president to visit Ghana
After Burkino Fasso, Macron will attend an African – European Union Summit in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast on Wednesday and Thursday. The focus will be on migration and security but the summit is likely to be overshadowed by revelations of slave auctions in Libya by CNN last week. The network’s footage drew criticism across the continent about politicians’ failure to do more against human trafficking.
In Abidjan, the president will also lay the cornerstone of the city’s metro system for which Paris has provided a 1.4-billion-euro ($1.7 billion) loan.
The French leader’s last, but significant stop on Thursday, will be in Ghana, a stable former British colony out of France’s sphere of influence. Macron is the first French president to go to this West African nation, where he hopes to boost economic ties.
A former investment banker and fluent English speaker, Macron will be able to draw on his own experience. As a student, he interned for six months at France’s embassy in Nigeria.
“The choice of Ghana will illustrate our approach to Africa and our ambition to build ties with Anglophone Africa,” said a source close to the president. “He will outline a ‘new vision of la ‘Francophonie ‘ [a term used to describe a network of French-speaking countries around the world similar to the Commonwealth] which is less defensive, but a factor of integration between Francophone and Anglophone Africa.”
But Macron’s efforts may struggle to convince.
“Nearly 60 years after African independence, France and Francophone Africa remain entangled beyond separation,” wrote researchers Meera Venkatachalam from the University of Mumbai in India and Amy Niang from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, after the French president was elected in May.
“French companies still have a quasi-monopoly over the most strategic areas in Francophone economies. Examples include electricity, telecommunications, infrastructure, airports and harbours. France’s continued influence on Francophone African foreign policy is apparent in Africa’s policy alignments.”
“Macron is a neo-liberal and former investment banker determined to open Africa up for greater trade, even amid security concerns. His first visit outside Europe was to French military forces in Mali. Some see this as a sign that his presidency may have an increasingly militaristic impact on Africa. Macron’s sober view of colonial history therefore should be taken with a pinch of salt, as he’s unlikely to loosen France’s grip over Africa,” according to Venkatachalam and Niang.
Too young to have known the colonies
Macron, however, does differ from his predecessors in at least one regard: his youth. He was born long after most French colonies became independent in the 1960s and so far has not rekindled the old networks of Francafrique.
“We have a president who has never known the colonies and never had those close links to the region’s leaders. He has more freedom to say what he thinks,” one diplomat told Reuters.
The test begins this week.