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

During Francois Mitterrand’s term in office (1981 - 1995) 60,000 French troops were stationed in Francophone Africa. They supported several unsavory governments, including the Hutu regime presided over by Juvenal Habyarimana in Rwanda, which went on to murder 800,000 Tutsis and some Hutus in the 1994 genocide. French soldiers did little to stop the bloodbath.

However, relations between France and its former colonies entered a new phase in the post 9/11 era. The Islamic Sahel and Arab North Africa became a new frontierin the global fight against terror.

French investment and commitment to development faded, paving the way for bilateral funding. Policy moved from guarding strategic assets to securing economic assets by any means necessary.

Under President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), French policy was distinctly interventionist. In 2002, France extended military support to Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire when his regime was threatened by a rebel insurgency. It remained heavily involved in Cote d’Ivoire until 2011 when Gbagbo was dislodged after a bitterly contested election.

The post-Chirac era
Chirac was the last of the paternalistic, Gaullist French leaders. After his presidency, France became unapologetically mercantilist: it remains in Francophone Africa to protect its nationals, to guard its assets and to counter Chinese competition for natural resources and markets.

After Chirac, came President Nicolas Sarkozy who had little empathy for Africa. Sarkozy’s policy was centerd on immigration, an issue that was at the top of his government’s agenda. As a way to deter immigration he adopted a “co-development” strategy, which saw France invest in education in Francophone Africa.

Socialist president Francois Hollande (2012 - 2017) became more involved in Africa than any other president, contradicting his apparently progressive rhetoric, which suggested a rethink of France’s neo-colonial relationship with the continent.

During Hollande’s term security issues that threatened French interests led to a series of military interventions. These included Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane in Mali.

There were also military interventions in Cote d’Ivoire, and the Central African Republic.

What started out as an ideological policy to maintain soft power through cultural and economic ties between France and francophone Africa had gradually become a coercive, militarized relationship.

The age of Macron
During the election campaign Emmanuel Macron told Le Figaro that France’s colonial occupation of Algeria was mired by “crimes against humanity” and “acts of barbarism”.

Macron is the first self-styled apologist to take office in France. He is calling for the severing of France’s relationship with Francophone Africa, but on African terms. Macron argues that a gradual phasing out of the CFA franc and withdrawal of French troops should be implemented if that’s what Africans want.

But, nearly 60 years after African independence, France and Francophone Africa remain entangled beyond separation. 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.

Meera Venkatachalam is Senior Fellow, African Studies, University of Mumbai. Amy Niang is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand.This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution / No derivative).