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France and AfricaFrance and Africa: Macron’s rhetoric shouldn’t be confused with reality

By Meera Venkatachalam and Amy Niang

Published 8 June 2017

The 2017 French election was watched with great nervousness by millions across Francophone Africa. That’s because the French president remains a pivotal figure in about twenty former French colonies on the continent. Over the past sixty years France has maintained disproportionate influence over its former African colonies. This has included control over their military and currencies. Despite being led by different presidents over the past six decades, the French government’s policy on Africa has been faithful to its neo-colonial roots and grounded in a yearning for the lost Empire. But will Emmanuel Macron’s presidency herald a significant change to France’s relationship with its ex-colonies?

The 2017 French election was watched with great nervousness by millions across Francophone Africa. That’s because the French president remains a pivotal figure in about twenty former French colonies on the continent.

Over the past sixty years France has maintained disproportionate influence over its former African colonies. This has included control over their military and currencies.

Despite being led by different presidents over the past six decades, the French government’s policy on Africa has been faithful to its neo-colonial roots and grounded in a yearning for the lost Empire.

But will Emmanuel Macron’s presidency herald a significant change to France’s relationship with its ex-colonies?

Unlike any other French leader Macron has openly expressed remorse for aspects of France’s colonial past. His election rhetoric suggested that he viewed France’s neo-colonial dominance with some embarrassment, preferring to loosen France’s hold on its former colonies.

But it’s one thing to speak of France’s need to confront its colonial past. When it comes to restoring French “confidence”, as Macron has promised, policy continuity, rather than change, will prevail.

A long legacy
In the aftermath of World War II, Charles De Gaulle formulated a strategy that was meant to define France’s relations with Africa in the post-imperial era.

The plan was to shore up France’s international standing by ensuring a continued relationship with its colonies. In fact, the short-lived Franco-African Union of the 1940s-50s was an attempt to establish a form of federation between France and its former colonies.

Instead, what sprung up across Francophone countries in West and Central Africa was a networkof French commercial, military and political interests. These interests worked to maintain the status quo of African economic and political elites.

Francafrique had strong colonial underpinnings. Former French colonies provided France with valuable raw material and minerals while opening their markets to French imports. In return, France guaranteed national security and a steady flow of aid.

France also propped up francophile leaders, in particular Senegal’s Leopold Sédar Senghor and Cote d’Ivoire’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Both saw themselves as the guardians of a paternalistic order that kept Francophone Africa under French tutelage.

More than that, France retained control of the CFA – the basic monetary unit of Central and West Africa. To this day African countries such as Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Gabon, are required to deposit two-thirds of their foreign exchange surpluses into a French operations account.