GP Short Notes # 692, 8 March 2023
Macron’s visit to Africa: Three Takeaways
Macron’s visit to the Central African countries is a clear attempt to redefine France’s Africa policy and revive its influential position. It aims to renew the lost ground, but challenges lie aplenty ahead.
On 4 March, French President Emmanuel Macron completed a four-day tour of Central Africa starting from 1 March 2023 wherein he visited Gabon, Congo, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The tour comes against the backdrop of France’s failing reputation in the continent and a renewed scramble for Africa. The visit has been termed an attempt to ‘reset’ or ‘redefine’ the erstwhile colonial power’s engagement with the region. However, this reset will require a non-armed approach, with a touch of humility.
During France’s presence in the region, security conditions deteriorated, plummeting its popularity. Shifting away from its former colonies, Macron included visits to other non-French colonies such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Moving away from regions brewing with anti-French sentiments is strategically important for France if it wants to remain a key player in the region.
The visit launched a strategy of reduced military presence in the African countries. This comes after the setback France faced in Mali and Burkina Faso, where it launched ambitious military interventions to tackle terrorism.
Macron has tried to shift the focus away from politics by announcing French humanitarian aid to eastern DRC, including support for agriculture and forests. Recognising the increasing influence of other powers in the geo-strategically important continent, Macron pointed that "Africa is a theatre of competition. It has to be done in a fair framework ... We have our role to play, neither more nor less."
The visit follows several important developments bearing a significant impact on France - a renewed push from the United States of America to strengthen its economic ties after a lull of over a decade, build up of Russian presence in Sahel, particularly of its private military contractor Wagner Group and China’s diversified interest in Gabon and Angola. These have been coupled with France’s exit from Mali and very recently Burkina Faso, breaking up of age-old military ties of these countries and a deepening security crisis in West Africa’s Sahel region.
What are the major takeaways?
The following three takeaways can be identified.
1. Need to win hearts and not wars
The African theatre is increasingly becoming more complicated and competitive. What used to be a stronghold of France decades ago has gradually eroded. The anti-French sentiments in these African nations have brought a lens of scepticism through which the erstwhile colonies look at France. Given these underlying sentiments, an attempt to renew France’s strategy will be difficult.
After a failed decade-long fight in the Sahel, France’s capabilities and its intentions have begun to be questioned by the region. Jean Gaspard Ntoutoume Ayi, vice-president of Gabonese opposition party Union Nationale said there was no political or strategic coherence to this four-day trip. Hence, to win this war of influence, France will have to be a winner of the hearts of the new target states, alongside improving relations with countries it has already been engaged with for decades.
2. Jostling for influence
The tour comes at a juncture when global politics witness another war of influence, with different actors this time. Macron’s visit follows several high-profile visits to the continent as each tries to expand its sphere of influence. China is known to have decades-long presence and deep-rooted economic ties, albeit often criticised for its debt-creating development projects across Africa. Russia is another entrant, which has been ousted with sanctions from Western countries for its year-long war in Ukraine. Russia has been eyeing Sudan, which was kept out of the Second US-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, for its strategic location next to the Red Sea and has a swaying influence over Sahel, a region where France had strategic interests up till now. The Wagner Group, Russia’s private military contractor, is said to have entered regions where France has had influence. But anti-French sentiment has pushed France to withdraw from Sahel with Macron stating "France's role is not to fix all the problems in Africa.” The tight rope on which France is walking on now needs to be tread with a balancing act.
3. Resetting a long due Africa policy
Macron pointed to a reduction in French military presence in the continent, but not a complete withdrawal. Following setbacks in Mali and Burkina Faso, Macron is now looking for co-running France’s military bases with the host nations. Macron claimed Francafrique, a reference used to explain France’s relations with its erstwhile colonies, is a thing of the past. The time is ripe for France to reflect and reassess their policies in Africa. More unarmed cooperation with African nations will enable it to restore some trust and rebuild deeper relations if it wishes to maintain influence in the region.
The visit, thus, points to a shift in France’s approach to the continent. The influence and status it once enjoyed has transformed and eroded to some extent over the years. Macron’s strategy will have to make room for a sustained presence of France in this increasingly competitive arena. The President’s approach of reduced military footprint in the continent is a step in the right direction to tackle the anti-French sentiment and suspicion on its intentions. The focus now should be on building a stronger democracy and ensuring grassroots development.
Trisha Roy is a postgraduate scholar at Christ (Deemed to be University).