‘Faltering, that’s what Africans expect’

In an interview, Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, a researcher at the Dakar Institute for Security Studies, analyzed a speech by Emmanuel Macron on Monday, 27 February, about France’s strategy in Africa. For Ivorian experts in the Sahel region, the policy direction and the security situation in Africa remain unclear, a symptom of persistent divisions within the French government on the issue.

What impressed you most about that speech?

Fahiraman Rodrigo Kone Once again we see a desire to profoundly change relations with Africa. But France has been reaffirming for years that it increasingly wants a spirit of partnership and collaboration with African countries. The country emphasizes support and training to deliver African solutions, especially in terms of security. However, this transformation, which has been announced many times, is not very obvious on the ground, so it is not very convincing.

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The exception is Niger, where Operation Crescent (French counterterrorism operation in the Sahel, launched in 2014) has been reprogrammed in recent months. Leadership in the fight against terrorism no longer belongs to Paris. French forces were integrated into Niger’s security apparatus and placed under the command of Niger forces.

The president said France’s historic era in Africa was coming to an end. This period was especially dominated by military issues. In your opinion, will this announced disruption actually happen?

These talking points were expressed to convince people of a fundamental split, but it’s unclear how that will turn out. In fact, France’s African policy still focuses on the security aspect. Paris has not announced that it will get rid of its base. As such, it will continue to maintain a military presence on the continent, albeit – as has long been announced – it will be redefined.

Still, a “significant reduction” in French military personnel in Africa was promised.

The claim is unclear. No specific numbers or timeline were provided. Talk of reducing troop numbers without presenting any verifiable indicators points to hesitation, ambiguity and internal tension in the French government regarding its African strategy. French policy in Africa is torn between conservatives who want to maintain a military presence there and progressives who want to get rid of French bases to erase this perceived anachronistic vision of Africa.

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This ambivalence prevents Paris from making deep reforms to its policies and from communicating its strategy clearly. Carry out unified work and clarify the direction.

In West Africa, anger is growing over the presence of French troops. Why would they choose to stay under these conditions?


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We must not be fooled, Emmanuel Macron emphasized this: France has interests to defend. They are primarily geostrategic. Africa is just one step away from Europe. To watch instability hit its doorstep poses a threat. It’s like the increasing presence of Russian adversaries on the continent. For France, gaining a foothold on the security front is a way of deterring Russia in an international environment of tense relations with Moscow.

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Isn’t France also trying to safeguard its own economic interests?

certainly. For example, we know that the economic impact of French uranium mining in Niger has been enormous. More broadly, Paris is seeking to protect areas of the economy it has long taken for granted but now face growing competition from major powers such as China and India. It’s a matter of staying in the market.

The French president also insisted on the need to change the economic model from an “aid approach” to a “joint investment approach based on partnerships”. What does it mean?

Paris understands that it must change its approach to a more equal economic partnership with African countries. To date, cooperation has been largely based on dependencies. France does give them, but it also enforces its own standards.

Today, African countries need to establish themselves economically, industrialize, and work with partners that allow them to choose their own model. So far, this development has been largely constrained by the West and has generally not worked. It is also at the heart of rising anti-Western sentiment in Africa, although the security debate is more in the spotlight.

For Macron, France bears “disproportionate responsibility” for Mali’s failure to fight jihadist groups. Despite the setback, he chose to point to Operation Crescent as a victory. Isn’t this just one way Paris is trying to hide its responsibility for the failure of security in the Sahel?

France is right to emphasize the fact that Operation Crescent has restricted the movement of jihadist groups in the Sahel. But the original goal, to curb its expansion, has yet to be achieved. Mali’s political and military elites certainly bear a large part of the blame, but we must not forget that it was France that wanted to lead and continue to helm this counterterrorism effort, keeping Mali’s partners in the background. When it comes time to take stock, it makes sense to hold France accountable.

In his speech, Macron reiterated France’s support for African democracies rather than military regimes. What do you think about this?

France wants to maintain its role as a guardian of democracy, but should be more careful with its language, since, in fact, its stance has recently been branded by double standards. We saw this in Chad in April 2021. Unlike Mali or Guinea, where Paris has condemned the coup, Paris has taken a conciliatory stance towards the new army in power, to say the least. In the past, when France supported so-called democratic regimes, it also supported corrupt parties.

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The French political paradox surrounding African democracy is one of the main means of discrediting France on the continent. This is the path Paris needs to take if it is to continue promoting what it seems to consider an absolute model of political governance. Africans expect concrete actions, not speeches.

Translation of an original article published in French on lemonde.fr; the publisher may be responsible for the French version only.

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