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Macron's mission in Africa: A new approach?

Philipp Sandner im
November 27, 2017

The French president's trip to Africa will attempt to demonstrate a new kind of politics as Macron seeks to break away from neocolonialism across the continent.

Leaders meet in Bamako, Mali
Image: Reuters/C. Archambault

Emmanuel Macron wants to make things right. The newest resident of the Elysee Palace is seeking a clear departure from the policies of his predecessors — and he has appointed eleven honorary consultants to help him do it. The new Presidential Council for Africa (CPA), which is made up of mostly business representatives with an African background, has spent the past few weeks educating the French president on all of the major issues across the continent before he kicks off his tour of West Africa. The French foreign media has already learned that Macron will say different things than his predecessors.

Addressing the youth

Macron will begin his African charm offensive with a speech at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso to an audience of around 800 students, followed by a question-and-answer session. The location has been strategically chosen as the perfect place to announce his new Africa strategy.

"It's a strong sign," says Congolese political scientist Tumba Shango Lokoho, who teaches at Paris-Sorbonne University. Macron aims to send a clear message that the future of Africa belongs to the younger generation, and they need to be supported. "If African youth are the future, they need an education and work prospects on the continent to advance the transformation of Africa," says Lokoho.  

But it's no easy task. "France has long been pursuing a schizophrenic Africa policy," he says. "There needs to be a renewal in discourse, but the African heads of state, who are often in office for a long time, are strategic partners in France." It's through them that France got involved, he says, adding that the goodwill of aging rulers alienated young Africans and civil society.

Former French President Francios Hollande meets with Rwandan President Paul Kagame
Macron is attempting to distance himself from his predecessor - above in a meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame - when it comes to African politics Image: A. Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

A new openness

After six months in office, there are already signs that things might change, Lokoho told DW. Macron encourages an open and respectful dialogue with his African counterparts. During his first visit to Mali, for example, he made it clear that the basis of their relationship needs to change. This means that everybody will have their own responsibilities.

But Macron is also holding himself to this standard. While visiting Algeria in February, the then-presidential candidate found clear words to describe the often troubled relationship between the two countries, describing French colonization of the country as a "crime against humanity" which deserved an apology. France held its breath as Macron's words were celebrated across Africa.

Macron's frankness sometimes backfires, however.

"In countries where the women still have seven to eight children, you can decide to spend billions of euros, but you will stabilize nothing there" — his criticism at the G20 summit in Hamburg of Germany's idea of a "Marshall Plan with Africa" caused worldwide outrage. His words recall a similar speech made by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 in Dakar, who had failed to address the history of Africa.

Macron received harsh criticism over his comments. Political scientist and feminist Francoise Vergès says high numbers of children do not slow down development — rather it is the other way around. But Lokoho reads into Macron's words differently: His statement was unfortunate, but he ultimately acknowledged a core problem which was also being addressed by African heads of state — something which Sarkozy ignored in his speech ten years ago.

Macron meets with French troops in Africa's Sahel region
Despite his different political approach, Macron has maintained strong support for France's anti-insurgent operation in Africa's Sahel regionImage: Reuters/C. Petit Tesson

Supporting African start-ups for regional security

Macron won't change everything, however. His security strategy picks up where Hollande left off, says Glaser. In addition to France's ongoing anti-insurgent operation in the Sahel region, he is also banking on building a new West African alliance against terror — the so-called G5 group. He continues to advocate for support, especially in the EU.

But the new president is taking another decisive step: "You can not fight terrorism effectively if you ignore the social and economic components," says Lokoho. Macron has recognized that it is necessary to support a fair and informed economic policy in order to weaken extremists on the ground.

Diversification of the economy has therefore become one of the president's goals. When Macron faces 800 students on Tuesday, 'Job Opportunities in the Region' will be his main message. At the end of the week, he will also visit a start-up in Ghana. This, too, is a strategic visit: newly-elected President Nana Akufo-Addo, whose anglophone democracy is still far ahead in terms of governance — and who just made French a mandatory language in secondary schools — would be a novel partner for France. So far, the former colonial power has been mainly associated with autocratic long-term rulers like Cameroon's Paul Biya, or Chad's Idriss Deby.

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