Emmanuel Macron is nothing if not self-possessed. The 39 year old’s rapid and stunning rise to the French presidency this year was fueled in no small part by his charisma and his ability to embellish centrist policies with radical rhetoric. It was no surprise, then, that during Macron’s first major, multi-country trip to Africa last week, he chose to engage skeptical students in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou on the controversial issues that continue to strain relations between France and its former colonies. While expressing regret for the crimes of colonialism and his admiration for African leaders like Mandela, Macron proudly assured his audience, “I am from a generation that doesn’t come to tell Africans what to do.”
But while the President’s trip, which included the EU-Africa summit in Abidjan, was intended to turn a new page in Franco-African relations, it was largely overshadowed by the recent revelations of slave auctions of migrants in Libya. In response to the ensuing international outcry, Macron announced on Wednesday that the EU would undertake an immediate evacuation of several thousand migrants stranded in Libya as part of a larger police and military action against human traffickers. The prospect of another French military intervention should give pause to those who had suggested that Macron’s election would herald the abrupt end of Françafrique, the pejorative term used to describe France’s controversial policies in Francophone Africa. Macron’s visit featured plenty of sympathetic language and vague pledges, but fell short of setting concrete policies to fundamentally alter the nature of Franco-African relations. That will be just fine with France’s partners in Washington and Brussels.
Françafrique, Then and Now
Françafrique began with decolonization and the paternalism and vindictiveness of Charles De Gaulle, who famously ordered all the public buildings in Guinea stripped down to the light fixtures after the Guineans shocked the then-Prime Minister by overwhelmingly voting “yes” in an independence referendum. The Cold War years were characterized by support for unabashedly kleptocratic dictators (including one possibly cannibalistic, self-proclaimed “Emperor”), which entailed all the cash-stuffed suitcases and hastily staged coups one would associate with neocolonialism.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and talk of a “third wave” of democracy globally and a “new generation” of African leaders specifically, many Africans and French alike hoped that France’s policies would shift accordingly. Unfortunately, the 1990s and 2000s saw tremendous upheaval across the continent, and France, still deeply involved in the economic and political life of its one-time colonies, felt compelled to launch some 16 military interventions between 1990 and 2010 while maintaining relationships with many unsavory leaders.
The mentality underpinning Françafrique has proven pervasive across the French political spectrum, hardly confining itself to the Right. At the twilight of French empire, socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet oversaw a brutal counterinsurgency against the Algerian FLN independence movement and participated in the 1956 Suez invasion to punish Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for his support of FLN insurgents. Under socialist President François Mitterand, the French provided extensive military and economic support to the Hutu extremist government of Juvenal Habyarimana in Rwanda, and launched a “humanitarian” intervention after the killings began, which had the effect of providing a safe haven for the genocidaires (Mitterand was also a man cynical enough to bomb a Greenpeace boat).
Macron is not the first French President to promise more equal Franco-African relations. Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned on such a pledge in 2007 only to immediately disappoint a hopeful continent when, on his first trip to Senegal, he repeated the tired Hegelian trope of the African as a man “who has not fully entered into history.” Five years later, and with more tact, Francois Hollande declared the end of Françafrique on a visit to Dakar, but subsequent interventions in the Central African Republic and the Sahel region reinforced the perception among many Francophone Africans that the former colonial power was not prepared to fully relinquish old possessions.
As we approach 2018, aspects of Françafrique remain prominent across the continent. French corporations exercise quasi-monopolistic control over key sectors of many Francophone nations’ economies such as infrastructure, telecommunications, and mining. The CFA Franc, the monetary union binding 14 African countries with France, requires African central banks to hold 50% of foreign exchange reserves in Paris in return for fixed-rate Euro convertibility—and, by extension, prevents governments within the union from exercising control over monetary policy. Proponents of the CFA, including some African heads of state, argue that the monetary union insulates their economies from the effects of political instability and the volatility of commodity markets, and the Paris banks make only paltry earnings from the arrangement. Nevertheless, the CFA Franc is increasingly unpopular in Africa as the anti-inflation orthodoxy of the European Central Bank is at odds with the development needs of some CFA nations that would benefit from devaluation-driven growth. Finally, the deployment of roughly 4,000 French troops in an expansive counterterrorism mission across the Sahel—dubbed Operation Barkhane—in addition to a 1,700-man base in Djibouti and garrisons of several hundred soldiers each in Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, and the Central African Republic belie any notion that France has abandoned its interventionist mindset.
With that said, there is no reason to doubt Macron’s sincerity when he speaks of his regret for colonialism’s brutality and his admiration for African heroes. His generation is one with no memory of French empire, and his background in finance and unabashedly globalist outlook would suggest he is sympathetic to the “Africa Rising” narrative promoted by many a development expert and optimistic pundit. A six-month stint at the French embassy in Nigeria a decade ago may have also given him an appreciation for the dynamism of Africa’s most populous country and largest economy. But Macron is a skilled politician cognizant of the constraints on his policy options and capable of prioritizing strategically. The West Africa visit should be seen as a well-tuned exercise in offering affordable concessions while holding fast on the trade and security policies that are most critical to the French national interest.
What Macron Can and Can’t Promise Africans
Most significant on the economic front, Macron stated in Ouagadougou that he would be willing to either adjust the exchange rate-setting procedure of the CFA Franc or even abandon the monetary union altogether, provided the decision is made by African leaders. The French would be sacrificing little more than colonial nostalgia by ditching the arrangement, and unpegging the currency could prove tenable for some of the CFA countries given the rebound in global commodity prices. Political elites in those countries, however, may be hesitant to abandon the system that has long facilitated their offshore holdings. Whatever the CFA nations decide is of little consequence to Paris.
Macron also pledged a billion-euro fund for African small and medium enterprises, the details of which have yet to be laid out, as part of his plan to increase France’s foreign aid budget by 45 percent by 2022. While a significant investment, it will yield few tangible results in a policy-relevant timeframe and it falls well short of the “African Marshall Plan” that African governments have eagerly anticipated, but which has so far proven to be little more than a vacuous buzzword of Brussels bureaucrats.
As part of his public reckoning with the unsavory history of Françafrique, Macron promised to release classified files related to the 1987 assassination of Burkinabe President Thomas Sankara (a national hero, dubbed “Africa’s Che Guevara,” whom many Africans believe was killed with French support). Such a move in itself does not improve relations—much as Obama’s acknowledgment of the CIA’s role in the 1953 Iran coup did little to help America’s image in the Middle East—but it is a sign of goodwill that should not be ignored. The President also went for the low-hanging fruit, offering vague assurances that the return of African artifacts from French museums would be a “top priority” for his administration.
Undiscussed during the visit was the future of the Economic Partnership Agreements between the EU and various African trade blocs. While neoliberalism has hardly been the death knell to Africa’s development that critics claim, most African governments complain that the current EPAs impede industrialization by flooding local markets with high-quality European products and incentivizing an export model based on extractive resources and commodities. Western aid programs have the potential to help boost African competitiveness in the long term, but they are insufficient to offset the immediate costs incurred by the EPAs. As such, EU trade policy remains a contentious issue for Africans and one that Macron seems understandably unenthusiastic to address.
That the biggest announcement of the trip was the EU action against human traffickers underscores the continuity in French policy towards Africa that we should expect under Macron. Macron was elected during a nationwide state of emergency, first declared after the horrific November 2015 Paris terror attacks and lingering for nearly two years afterward. He has identified Islamist terrorism as the top security threat facing France, and a recent poll showed that 80% of French citizens support the country’s tough new anti-terrorism legislation. Affiliates of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda operate freely throughout multiple regions of Africa at a time when massive migrant flows from Libya have raised fears of terrorists entering Europe. A tough EU response to the migrant challenge has in turn left hundreds of thousands of Africans languishing in Libyan transit camps, prompting international outrage that has led to this newest call for military action in the region. If Macron had hoped to conduct a less hawkish foreign policy in Africa, he picked the worst time to get elected.
While the French army is quite effective at the type of low-intensity conflict being fought in the Sahel, their forces in the region are overstretched, and Paris has accordingly sought to internationalize the Barkhane mission as part of its exit strategy. France has therefore been a key backer of the G5 Sahel Force—a multinational military force comprised of units from Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. The G5 force conducted its first mission against Islamist insurgents in Mali last month, but despite its billing as “an African solution to African problems,” the force is heavily dependent on French air support and logistics as well as Western funding. Given the poor capacities of the G5 militaries, their lack of experience operating effectively together, and the dependence of African multinational forces on continuous foreign support, Operation Barkhane is likely to continue for the near future.
No doubt such a continued French commitment will be welcomed in Washington. From what little we can ascertain about President Trump’s policy priorities in Africa, counterterrorism is high on the list. After the fallout from the October 4 ambush in Niger that killed four American soldiers, the White House is looking for ways to maintain pressure on jihadist groups in Africa without incurring additional risk to U.S. forces. This may explain the Trump Administration’s recent pledge to partially fund the G5 force at France’s request, despite its previous skepticism of the effort. If the White House feels that France won’t prematurely pass off responsibilities in the Sahel to a nascent African joint force or a beleaguered UN peacekeeping mission, then the Administration will likely be more amenable to France’s strategy, even if it includes unpopular capacity-building programs for African security sectors.
With no clear end to France’s Sahel intervention in sight, it may be tempting to think of Franco-African relations as a case of plus ça change, but Macron would undoubtedly dispute such a characterization. If he follows through on his pledges by boosting development aid, concentrating that aid in the most promising sectors of African economies, and phasing out the CFA Franc with African nations’ support, then Macron could be remembered as a President who oversaw a shift towards more equal relations.
Unfortunately, such developments are well beyond the horizon. The near term is less promising. For all Macron’s apparent sensitivity and impassioned speeches, Françafrique is not yet in its death throes.
Published on: December 5, 2017
James Barnett is a researcher at the Hudson Institute focusing on security in Africa and the Middle East. He recently returned from a year in East Africa where he was a Boren Scholar.