France's Macron seeks renewal of Africa ties, but old problems persist

PARIS (Reuters) - Barely six months into office, President Emmanuel Macron is already preparing for his third visit to sub-Saharan Africa. Yet while the energetic young leader is eager to reshape France’s relationship with the continent, old problems die hard.

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a news conference following a meeting with Guinea's President Alpha Conde at the Elysee Palace in Paris, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

His Nov. 28-30 trip to Burkina Faso, Ghana and Ivory Coast is aimed at boosting cooperation on education, the digital economy and the environment. The visit will be capped by an EU-Africa summit in Abidjan, when migration will top the agenda.

“Africa is not just the continent of migration and crises. It’s a continent of the future,” the 39-year-old president told French ambassadors in August.

But even then, French forces were being sucked deeper into a years-long battle to quell Islamist militancy in Mali. Last month, a raid by French special forces in the Malian desert illustrated how deep that quagmire is becoming.

French troops stormed an Islamist training camp, killing 15 suspected militants. French officials said the operation was based on intelligence the camp housed Malians who had joined the Islamists. Mali said government soldiers held hostage by the Ansar al-Dine group were among the dead.

As recriminations flew, a defense official spoke of “a real trust problem”. Laurent Bigot, a former under-secretary in the French foreign ministry, was blunt: “Mali is a disaster,” he said. “We’re repeating mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

That assessment underlines just how much work Macron faces if he is to strengthen security and migration policy without getting bogged down in costly military ventures. More than 7,000 French troops are already deployed across Africa.


Macron will make his first stop in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, where he will set out his vision for Franco-African relations in his favored style - a speech.

Language and tone are critical. French presidents usually make early visits to Africa, but some have misjudged. Nicolas Sarkozy declared “the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history”. The comment has haunted him.

A presidency official said Macron would emphasize education and investing in youth across the continent, themes he has touched on in his first six months in power.

In Ghana, a former British colony where France has ramped up investment, including in oil, telecoms and technology, Macron is to promote the digital economy and a broadening of French education initiatives.

In Ivory Coast, environment will be the main topic, before EU and African leaders meet to discuss security and migration, with both Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel keen to limit the flow of migrants to Europe by introducing tighter checks and controls on African soil, not in Europe.

Macron’s proposals to bolster African growth and create jobs echo Germany’s call for a “Marshall Plan for Africa”. He also promises to raise France’s aid budget from 0.38 percent of national income to 0.55 percent by 2022.


After French colonialism ended in the 1950s and 60s, France wielded a tight grip over its former dominions, using military might to install leaders in return for French companies securing lucrative contracts -- a policy dubbed “Francafrique”.

But French diplomats say the days of France throwing its weight around for commercial favors are over.

Macron, born months after Djibouti became the last French colony to gain independence, has shown little inclination to revive the old networks that linked French businessmen and intelligence agents with African politicians.

“We have a president who has never known the colonies and never had those close links to the region’s leaders. He has more freedom to say what he thinks,” said one diplomat.

Macron has created an African Presidential Council to help shape his thoughts. Its 11 members are mostly young, dual-national entrepreneurs with backgrounds in art, media, finance and ecology. It reports directly to the president, irking some in diplomatic circles.

France’s shift away from Francafrique has eroded the privileges once enjoyed by companies such as Total, Orange and Areva, just as globalization has opened the field to China and India.

French business group Medef is lobbying Macron for a greater role for the private sector in his vision for Africa, although some acknowledge French companies face huge competition and can still suffer an image problem.

“Africa is a fast growing continent, business opportunities are not a problem,” said Patrice Fonlladosa, president of Veolia Africa & Middle East and head of Medef’s Africa committee. “The problem is being chosen as the partner of choice.”

Additional reporting by John Irish, Marine Pennetier; Editing by Luke Baker and Richard Balmforth