Can The Next French President Chart A New Course For Africa Policy?

APRIL 21, 2017

Supporters of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen during a campaign meeting, Paris, France, April 17, 2017 (AP photo by Kamil Zihnioglu).

On Sunday, France will vote in the first round of a heated presidential election that has domestic and international observers biting their nails. More than ever, the outcome of the French vote will resonate beyond its borders, with implications for the fate of the European Union, the plight of migrants and refugees, and security in the Middle East and Africa.

Terrorism, immigration and the economy have dominated the contentious campaign period. That’s not surprising: Just yesterday, a gunman killed a police officer in Paris; migrant camps have popped up across the country; and unemployment, especially among youth, is soaring. But foreign policy hasn’t been absent from the debate, and nowhere in the world does France have a larger imprint than in Africa.

France’s role in Africa, grounded in its colonial past, is complicated. Upon taking office in 2012, outgoing President Francois Hollande pledged to break with “Francafrique”—a term that refers to the web of close economic, military and political ties Paris has maintained with its former colonies. These cozy relations mean France has often been overly accommodating, critics say, pointing to Paris’ willingness to work with rights-abusing leaders in Chad or the Republic of Congo, for example, or the safe haven the country seems to offer some of Africa’s most corrupt leaders.

Hollande will leave office with unprecedented disapproval ratings that hover at 4 percent, and his Africa record has earned mixed reviews. Critics note that, despite his pledge to transition away from French interference on the continent, France’s presence seems larger, not smaller, at the end of his term, with troops stationed from Senegal to Djibouti and active in hotspots throughout the Sahel. His admirers—and there are some, including WPR columnist Richard Gowan—argue that his deployments in Mali and the Central African Republic helped prevent chaos and improved counterterrorism efforts in Africa.

So, how do the candidates vying to succeed him envision the future of French policy in Africa? As in elections past, each is steadfastly calling for a clean break with Francafrique. “For at least the past two or three presidential elections, the question of a rupture with Francafrique has become a source of public debate,” says Richard Banegas, a professor of political science at Sciences Po, noting that Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, had made a similar promise with little success. “One gets the impression that France is trapped by its colonial heritage,” Banegas notes, pointing to factors such as economic ties and security interests that render disengagement difficult.

During this year’s campaign, the candidates have proposed drastically different strategies for creating a new model for French engagement in Africa. In late March, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen went to Chad, where she spoke with the 3,000 French troops stationed there and met with Chad’s president, Idriss Deby—a repressive leader with a shoddy human rights record. Le Pen is notorious for her xenophobic rhetoric and is outspoken in her defense of colonialism, and her visit didn’t please everyone. Yet, in an interview with Le Monde, she pledged to make Francafrique a thing of the past, fervently promoting a policy of non-interference. She said she would maintain French counterterrorism operations on the continent, but abolish the CFA franc, a euro-pegged currency used in 14 countries in West and Central Africa guaranteed by the French Treasury. That sort of retrenchment would take place against the backdrop of reinforced national borders and a serious crackdown on immigration from Africa—in perfect continuity with her platform more broadly.

Le Pen also lambasted her opponent, Emmanuel Macron, who during a trip to Algeria in February called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity”—a comment Francois Fillon, the center-right candidate, similarly condemned.

Like Le Pen, Macron has an Africa policy in line with much of his general platform, which endorses a globalist approach and a robust international role for France. He sees the influx of refugees from Africa as a “European question,” he explained in an interview with Le Monde. Rather than shutting borders, he would focus on economic and institutional development, and curbing human trafficking. That would include significant investments to improve growth, support urbanization, help expand the middle class, protect women’s rights and strengthen civil society. “When I see Africa, I see the continent of the future,” he said, noting its importance in the French-speaking world and in France’s global footprint.

Fillon, meanwhile, has echoed Macron’s calls for economic development while differing dramatically on immigration, calling for annual entry quotas and increased border controls. He also supports maintaining counterterrorism cooperation across Africa, notably in the Sahel. Benoit Hamon, the socialist candidate, would increase humanitarian visas while pushing for social and economic development on the continent.

For his part, the far-left Jean-Luc Melanchon, who has recently surged in the polls, told Le Monde he would review French military operations in Africa, limiting security cooperation to democratic governments and prioritizing training. “We will stop closing our eyes at rigged elections,” he said, calling for an end to Francafrique while stressing the importance of maintaining “la Francophonie,” the network of French-speaking countries around the world. “Africa,” he said, “is a continent of the future for France, and will only remain one if French is largely spoken.”

According to Banegas, the support of some candidates for economic development and conditioned military cooperation is part of a greater recognition that democratization is a prerequisite to growth and stability. So far, this idea has not significantly informed French policy. “We still see a politics not in favor of links with citizen movements, but with repressive regimes, prioritizing security above all else,” he says.

Some positive steps have been taken. In November, Jean-Marc Ayrault, the minister of foreign affairs, met with activists from pro-democracy movements in Burkina Faso, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Chad. Support for these movements in part stems from a rejection of France’s outsized influence, potentially creating space to turn a new page on relations.

At the same time, however, “there’s no conversation about the autocratic nature of the regimes,” Banegas says. “France is just doing business.” Absent a shift away from that logic and toward policies that tackle the sources of instability while welcoming those fleeing conflict, decades-old ills will likely continue to plague French policy in Africa.

Karina Piser is an associate editor at World Politics Review.