Old habits die hard: Macron seeks end to traditional French approach to Africa


On his first tour of Africa last week President Emmanuel Macron vowed to do away with France's old and discredited approach to the continent. Addressing 800 students in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, the French head of state certainly struck a fresh tone, talked of new projects and themes and signalled the passing of an old generation. But as Mediapart's editor François Bonnet reports, the old and serious problems confronting France in its relations with Africa have not gone away.

This article is freely available. Check out our subscription offers. Subscribe

When one compares it to the efforts of his two presidential predecessors, it was undoubtedly a skilfully-constructed success. Back in 2007 President Nicolas Sarkozy had sparked a scandal with his 'Dakar speech' – written by advisor Henri Guaino – in which he told his audience in the Senegalese capital that “the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history”. In the same city in 2012 the next French head of state, President François Hollande, promised that “the era of what one called Françafrique is over”, referring to France's traditional and controversial approach to the continent and its former colonies there. The rest of his presidency went on to prove that old practices and the old players have, too often, remained in place.

It was Ouagadougou rather than Dakar where the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, chose to deliver his 90-minute speech on Tuesday November 28th on Africa and France's policy towards the continent. Indeed, the first smart move was the choice of the capital city of Burkina Faso, a country which now has free elections and a democratic process since the rebellions that removed Blaise Compaoré in 2014, after 27 years of absolute rule. The second clever move was to visit Ghana on the last day of his three-day trip to Africa, as this English-speaking country has had a settled democracy for two decades or so and governments there hand over power without any problems.

For Emmanuel Macron's aim on his first African tour as president is to turn the page once and for all on 'Françafrique' and all that remains of it. It is no simple exercise as the French head of state found out for himself in Burkina Faso. France has been strongly criticised in that country precisely for having protected Blaise Compaoré in 2014 – he was an historic ally of Paris – and above all for having spirited him away to the Ivory Coast. In the same way there are still to this day answered questions about possible French involvement in the October 1987 assassination of the country's then-president Thomas Sankara, a charismatic leader both in Burkina Faso and of Pan-Africanism more widely.

In this, the year marking the 30th anniversary of his murder, Sankara's popularity has never been as great. Macron sought to defuse criticism by announcing on his arrival at Ouagadougou that all French documents relating to the Burkina Faso president's assassination would be declassified. “Every document that the Burkina Faso justice system would like to see will be opened and transmitted,” he said to a student who questioned him at the end of his speech at the University of Ouagadougou. That has also been a demand made by the International Campaign for Justice for Thomas Sankara (ICJS).

See here a recent Mediapart video interview, in French, on the legacy of Thomas Sankara.

Another smart move by Emmanuel Macron was to begin his speech in front of 800 students and current president Roch Marc Kaboré by quoting Sankara and his expression “daring to invent the future”. The French president added: “I was told that this was a Marxist and Pan-African lecture theatre and that's why I wanted to speak here.” From the start the president, whose long speech was listened to respectfully by the audience, wanted to turn his back on the past, this “past which must be allowed to pass”. Of course, he added, “the crimes of European colonisation are indisputable” but “our responsibility is not to get trapped in the past”.

To achieve that the 39-year-old French president played the 'new generation' card, highlighting his own relative youth to young people who constitute the majority of the African population; 70% of Africans are under the age of 30. “Like you I'm from a generation for whom one of the finest political memories is Nelson Mandela's victory,” he said. He was a 'young person' speaking to other young people. This approach served a double purpose: to remove the painful issues of the past and to differentiate himself, too, from old or very old African leaders who in some cases have been in power for decades.

During his speech at Ouagadougou University on November 28th, 2017, Emmanuel Macron highlighted the youthfulness of Africa's populations.
“I haven't come to give lessons, we're not going to say to Africa what the rules are, what the rule of law is,” Emmanuel Macron insisted on several occasions. He even went so far as to say: “There is no longer a French African policy.” In other words the notion of Françafrique had been jettisoned to be replaced by state to state bilateral relations with the country's 54 countries. “Africa is neither a past burden nor a neighbour like any other: Africa is etched in France's identity,” he added. Obviously large sections of the presidential speech very quickly went on to contradict such fine stated intentions, as what followed was a policy specially geared to French-speaking Africa.

So, after the appeals for young people to take their destiny in their own hands, to fight for pluralism and democracy, for education and for gender equality, after urging a fight against “religious obscurantism” and a united front against “extremism”, and for Africans to take part in the fight against climate change, some very practical difficulties emerged.

Extend your reading on Mediapart Unlimited access to the Journal free contribution in the Club Subscribe