OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - France’s President Emmanuel Macron told African youths on Tuesday that he belonged to a new generation of French leaders who would build partnerships with the continent rather than tell it what to do.
But a youth protest against him, stones pelting one of his delegation’s vehicles and a botched grenade attack on French troops hours before his arrival in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou showed the hostility that still lingers after decades of an often tense France-Africa relationship.
Macron was also subjected to rowdy student questions at the university after his speech in Ouagadougou, and was sometimes left fruitlessly hushing as he struggled to get his answers heard above the crowd.
In his speech, peppered with references to African nationalists such as Nelson Mandela and Burkina’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, Macron promised a break with a past in which France often seemed to call the shots to former colonies.
“I am from a generation that doesn’t come to tell Africans what to do,” Macron said, prompting applause.
“I am from a generation for whom Nelson Mandela’s victory is one of the best political memories.”
The 39-year-old is on a three-day visit to Burkina Faso, Ghana and Ivory Coast aimed at boosting cooperation in education, the digital economy and migration.
“I will be alongside those who believe that Africa is neither a lost continent or one that needs to be saved,” he said.
The grenade attack missed the French soldiers but wounded three civilians hours before Macron arrived. No group claimed responsibility.
Stones were thrown at a delegation convoy, however Macron was far away from it at a meeting with his Burkina counterpart, Roch Marc Kabore in the presidential palace.
Dozens of local youths clashed with security forces in the center of the capital throwing stones. Police responded with teargas. Protesters burnt T-shirts with images of Macron and carried slogans including “Down with new-colonialism” and “French military out of Burkina”.
It was not the first time a French president has promised to break with past French politics on the continent.
Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande declared while visiting Senegal in 2012 that “the time of La Francafrique is over”, referring to a shadowy network of diplomats, soldiers and businessmen who manipulated African leaders for decades after independence.
But it comes at a tense time, when French troops are being sucked deeper into a years-long battle to quell Islamist militancy in the Sahel region.
France has 4,000 troops deployed there, and there are mixed feelings about their presence - highlighted in a bitter row between France and Mali over the deaths of 11 Malian troops being held captive by Islamist militants in a French air strike.
The French are pinning their hopes on the so-called G5 Sahel force being set up by regional country’s with French and American backing. It launched a campaign on Oct. 28 amid growing unrest in the desert reaches of the region, where jihadists allied to al Qaeda or inspired by Islamic State roam undetected.
Macron earlier told journalists G5 had been too slow to get established.
He said he would call for greater co-operation between Europe and Africa to tackle human trafficking and he touted a European initiative to rescue African migrants from being enslaved in Libya.
The exchange with heckling students was typical Macron, who during his presidential campaign often managed to turn initially hostile crowds in his favor by answering questions head on.
“You speak to me like I‘m a colonial power, but I don’t want to look after electricity in Burkina Faso. That’s the work of your president,” he retorted to one hostile questioner.
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Additional reporting by John Irish, Richard Lough and Michel Rose in Paris; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alison Williams