1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
PoliticsBurkina Faso

President Macron visits Africa with a new strategy

Martina Schwikowski
March 1, 2023

French President Macron's new strategy for Africa includes decreasing military presence and improving economic ties. Ahead of his visit to four African countries, the response from hosting nations is mixed.

Frankreich | Afrika-Europa Konferenz | Emmanuel Macron
Image: Sarah Meyssonnier/AP Photo/picture alliance

French President Emmanuel Macron is starting his multi-day trip to the African continent with a bang: Just before his departure to Gabon planned for Wednesday, Macron evoked a shift in France's Africa policy. Speaking at the Elysée Palace on Monday, he outlined a future posture towards Africa that should be marked not by military presence, but by humility.

Macron said that France must show "deep humility" in Africa. This included the "noticeable reduction" of its military presence in Africa, which was to be implemented in coming months. This "reorganization" was not a retreat, Macron stressed. The French president will visit Angola, the Republic of the Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, following his visit to Gabon. He also announced that he planned to intensify economic relations.

Macron strikes a new tone in Africa

Macron had already announced a new turn in France's Africa policy at the beginning of his presidency: In a widely debated speech to students in Burkina Faso in late 2017, he had called for a departure from "Francafrique," France's neocolonial influence in former French and Belgian colonies in Africa. On Monday, Macron referenced this speech, and analysts have drawn similar parallels.

A French soldier in Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso wants France to withdraw its soldiersImage: Philippe de Poulpiquet/MAXPPP/picture alliance

"Macron's point was to emphasize more humility than in the past," Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said in an interview with DW. "It's a very different tone from six years ago, when Macron gave his keynote speech on French Africa-policy in Ouagadougou." He believed the new discourse showed that the administration was realizing France would need to change its policy towards Africa in light of recent setbacks suffered, particularly in the Sahel region.

Vines added that the main aim was to bring French military bases on the African continent under greater African influence. In the future, military bases were expected to be run in cooperation with local forces, or converted into military academies. Most recently, the number of French forces on the African continent dropped from 5,000 to 3,000 indivduals.

Inappropriate security concepts for Africa's conflicts

"In reality, the idea of converting bases into military academies is not that new," said Niagalé Bagayoko, head of the African Security Sector Network (ASSN) in Ghana. "This approach is strongly reminiscent of the policy pursued by France in the late 1990s and early 2000s," Bagayoko told DW.

A man holds a placard reading "Long live Russia" as people demonstrate against French military presence in Niger
Anti-French sentiment is also evident in Niger in protests against the militaryImage: BOUREIMA HAMA/AFP/Getty Images

She added: "Even at the beginning of the Sahel crisis more than a decade ago, African armies were in a state that should have given cause to reconsider this form of training. That didn't happen." It had become clear, she said, that the imported security concepts — whether French, multilateral, or Russian — were completely inadequate to deal with the conflicts in Africa.

Anti-French sentiment in Africa

The former French colonies have been roiling for some time. Anti-French sentiments have given way to protests, and are echoed by the interim governments that have taken over in Mali and Burkina Faso  after recent coups.

For many years, French troops were a major force in the fight against Islamist terrorist groups in the region. Less than a month ago, Burkina Faso called on the former colonial power to withdraw forces.

In 2022, France ended Operation Barkhane in Mali, partly because the interim government there maintains close ties with Russia and is said to have hired mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group.

Two soldiers from Mali and France
France's Operation Barkhane withdrew from Mali last yearImage: Etat-major des armées / France

In response to repeated criticism of French troops, Macron stated in his speech on Monday that he was "proud" of the performance of his troops in the Sahel reigon. According to Andreas Eckert, a scholar of African history at the Humboldt University in Berlin, France's military presence has fueled anti-French sentiment, which in turn has been damaging economic interests. "Macron realizes to some extent that France will no longer be able to continue its neocolonial policies," Eckert said.

French economic interests more strongly represented

Now, Eckert believes France is trying to exit its military strategy without losing face. Discontent at home has also been mounting, with critics pointing out that military spending was too high, and domestic investments too low. 

However, while France's influence in its former colonies is waning, African countries remain important to Paris. Macron is now seeking closer economic cooperation. Andreas Eckert points out that Macron had announced in the run-up to his speech that French companies needed to compete with Chinese and Russian investments.

A man sits in front of a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russia's influence in Africa is growingImage: Florent Verges/AFP

New relations or withdrawal from Africa?

President Macron's itinerary may give an indication of how Paris intends to achieve this. "It's about rebuilding relationships with countries that have longstanding ties with France like Gabon, which has an elections this year, and Congo-Brazzaville, which is important for TotalEnergies," said British expert Vines, referring to one of the world's leading enterprises in fossil fuel based in France.

For Vines, the trip is a signal that France is not withdrawing from Africa, but wants to build "new and better relations" with countries like Angola. The former Portuguese colony in southwestern Africa had applied for membership in the group of French-speaking African countries, Vines explained, and for membership in the Commonwealth. The  Democratic Republic of the Congo, once a Belgian colony, was also important to France due to its minerals and resources, Vines says. In recent months, Macron had appealed to the Congolese government to settle the conflict along its eastern borders.

This article was originally published in German.