(Jessica Ilunga) - Africans in France and across the continent greeted with relief and enthusiasm Emmanuel Macron’s
victory in the 2017 French election. The only time Africans celebrated the victory of another Western leader was when Barack Obama was first elected US president back in 2008. For many of them, especially in Francophone Africa, Macron is a symbol of hope. His victory might spell the end of France’s disproportionate influence in its former colonies embodied by Françafrique.
However, these expectations are misplaced. Just like there was no major change to the US policy towards Africa under Obama, it is highly unlikely that French-African relations will take a fundamentally new turn under Macron’s presidency, in spite of his promising election rhetoric. For African countries, his victory is an important reminder that as long as they let their partners take the driver’s seat, they will continue to be on the receiving end of detrimental and unfair foreign policies.
A victory for Africa?
After a year marked by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump in the US, millions of people watched the last French presidential election with great nervousness. While most nations around the globe celebrated France’s win over populism, the French African diaspora and Africans across the continent breathed the loudest sigh of relief.
The only time Africans celebrated the victory of another Western leader was when Barack Obama was first elected US president back in 2008.
Unlike his controversial far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, Macron was a symbol of hope and renewal. Many African leaders were quick to congratulate the newly elected president and called for even closer cooperation with France. The president of Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara, insisted on his “availability to work towards the strengthening of the friendship and cooperation between France and Côte d’Ivoire”. President Macky Sall of Senegal sent a similar message. And President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita from Mali believes Macron’s election is “a beautiful victory which might be the start of a great new experience between France and its friends”.
African populations, especially in Francophone Africa, shared these optimistic reactions to Macron’s victory. As a young and progressive president, they believe that Macron will break away from his predecessors’ neo-colonial approach towards Africa. They see him as a chance to finally end Françafrique, a system of informal political and commercial networks that has been accused of being the source of poverty and political instability in former French colonies. The system is based on connections between French and African elites who usually met while studying together at prestigious French universities. African leaders were given protection against criminal prosecution and public condemnation in exchange for political allegiance and lucrative deals for French companies.
As a young and progressive president, they believe that Macron will break away from his predecessors’ neo-colonial approach towards Africa.
As a president with little experience in foreign relations, it is difficult to predict with precision how Macron will drive French foreign policy towards Africa. His election rhetoric sounded promising and suggested a desire to loosen France’s grip [link in French] over its former colonies. However, due to a number of factors, it is unlikely French-African relations will take a fundamentally new turn under Macron’s presidency.
Old policies get a pretty face
Macron might be a young, smart and progressive leader but he was elected to address economic, political and cultural interests at home that will prevent him from giving Africans what they desperately want. Sometimes, France’s foreign policy decisions serve both the nation itself and African countries. Fighting Islamic terrorism in the Sahel region, for instance, is prominent on Macron’s African agenda. Earlier this month, he attended the G5 Sahel Summit where he pledged support and financial assistance to the Sahel military force.
But saving Africans was not his primary concern. Rather, he considers that the increase of terrorist activity in that region poses a direct threat to France and to Europe. Not only does it threaten France’s economic assets in the region but it also has the potential to worsen Europe’s migrant crisis. In addition, the terrorist threat has allowed France to strengthen its military presence in its former colonies, which does not bode well for the territorial sovereignty of those countries.
From an economic perspective, Françafrique has been a very lucrative business for France. Thanks to shady post-colonial agreements, France has cheap and easy access to the natural resources that it needs for these industries. Furthemore, some of France’s largest companies hold a quasi-monopoly over strategic sectors of Francophone African economies, including electricity, telecommunications, infrastructure, airports and harbours. Bolloré, which is the region's largest logistics group by turnover, is active in more than 40 African countries. It operates 17 ports in Africa, including those of Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire, Douala in Cameroon, Libreville Owendo in Gabon and Pointe-Noire in Congo. Since 92 percent of imports and exports to and from Africa are conducted by sea, controlling African ports equates to controlling African trade. Likewise, oil giant Total has a network of more than 4,000 service stations across Africa, while telecommunication company Orange has more than 120.7 million users in 20 countries. Last year, it had a turnover of € 5.24 billion, which represented 12.8 percent of the group's global activity. Thanks to shady post-colonial agreements, France has cheap and easy access to the natural resources that it needs for these industries.
Jessica is a communications consultant who is passionate about Africa and the role the continent has to play on the international scene. She started her career in a pan-African strategy and communications consulting firm in London. There, she advised clients in the financial, mining, international development, education and agricultural sectors. Then, she moved to Gabon where she worked on government communications for WPP Team Gabon. She holds an LLM in European and International Law from the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) and an MSc. in Global Politics from the London School of Economics (UK).