French President Macron ended a four-nation tour of Africa earlier in March, which took him to Gabon, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hopeful of restoring France’s influence in the continent, Macron met with African presidents amid popular protests – signs of rising anti-French sentiment in parts of Francophone Africa.
Macron sought to reset his country’s ties with African country across several dimensions, summarised as follows:
1. Controversial visit to Gabon:
Macron kicked off in Gabon where he attended the One Forest Summit and pledged 100 Euros for funds dedicated to saving the second largest forest in the world after the Amazon. The summit, held in Libreville, sought to attract international aid to mitigate and fund environmental issues and deforestation threat facing the continent.
Macron’s visit caused an upheaval in Gabon as the opposition considered the visit an indirect endorsement of the incumbent president, Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba, ahead of presidential elections later this year. President Ondimba raised to power in 2009, after taking over his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled from 1967 until he died in 2016. President Ondimba’s re-election in 2016 attracted wide criticism over transparency issues.
2. Strengthening economic cooperation with Angola:
Luanda is a strategic host to major French companies like Total, delivering strategic projects in the energy sector. Keen to expand French presence in Angola, President Macron signed new contracts in the agriculture sector, especially as Angola looks to strengthen its food security. Experts have also pointed to the fact that France is aiming to cement its presence in former Francophone and Portuguese colonies.
3. Expanding the partnership with Brazzaville:
Macron sought to expand bilateral partnerships to include health and culture sectors, as well as improving military and security cooperation. A new comprehensive agreement between the two countries was signed during Macron’s visit to commemorate the extended relations in the long run.
4. French support of Kinshasa:
Macron concluded his tour with a visit to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a former Belgian colony, which is facing mounting security pressure under the Rwanda-backed March 23 (M23) movement. Paris is balancing its relations with DRC and Rwanda, and Macron seems keen on reviving France’s peace initiative alongside the wider African efforts to mediate between M23 and DRC.
Ahead of Macron’s visit, the opposition organised wide protests at the French embassy in DRC, raising the Russian flag in a defying message to Macron, whose government has been accused of supporting M23.
Macron’s tour is his 18th since he became president in 2017. Never had any previous president visited the continent that many times, which goes to show the centrality of Africa to Macron’s strategy. Several interests drive the French president’s interest in Africa, which may be summarised as follows:
1. New partnerships:
Looking for new partnerships in Africa, Macron is trying to reset France’s relations amid increased anti-French sentiment. By end of 2022 Macron expressed his intention to expand France-Africa relations beyond the Sahel, therefore explaining his visit to new countries this trip.
2. Italian expansion:
Competition between France and Italy increased in recent years with the arrival of Italian PM Giorgia Meloni to power in 2022. Meloni criticised France’s role in Africa, accusing Paris of draining the continent’s natural resources. During a visit to Algeria in 2023, Meloni visited the Martyr's Memorial, a symbol of the Algerian revolution against French colonialism.
Meloni also visited Enrico Mattei Park, founder of Italy’s leading energy company, Eni, and a key supporter of Algeria’s anti-French rebellion in the 50s. Mindful of Meloni’s ambitions to connect Algerian gas to Europe through Italy, Meloni’s movements have added more strain to ailing France-Italy relations, as Paris accuses the Italian PM of undermining French interests in Africa.
3. Worries over Chinese and Russian influence:
Paris is disturbed by China’s and Russia’s increased presence in Africa, especially Francophone countries. Facing a rapid expansion in the continent, Paris follows China’s presence with worry. And although Macron has said Paris was not interested in international competition over influence in Africa, he criticised Russia’s increased presence via its private security group, Wagner, calling it a group of mercenaries who support failed regimes.
Macron’s tour came on the heels of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Mauritania, Sudan, and Mali, in addition to another tour by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang earlier in the month, who visited Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin, and Egypt.
Among the four nations Macron visited, Angola, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo refrained from voting against Russia in the UN.
4. Securing economic interests:
A key motive behind Macron’s visit to Africa. From major industry sectors, to energy and minerals sectors, where more than 1100 French investment groups and 2100 major companies operating in the continent, France is the third major investor in the continent after the UK and the US. This explains the big business delegation that accompanied Macron. Hoping to secure new investment opportunities in Africa amid fierce competition from China and Turkey, Macron is hoping to challenge the rising anti-French sentiment within ECOWAS and the Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States, which have the African Franc pegged with French financial markets.
New French Approach
Macron’s visit came just two days after revealing his new Africa strategy, which marks a significant change in France’s policy, summarised as follows:
1. Reduce military engagement:
Macron has reiterated the end of France’s military presence in Africa. The coming months will see French troops leaving, instead focusing on training and servicing allies militarily.
But Macron doesn’t intend to close down French military bases. Instead, he wants to transform them into academies that deliver training programmes and have African allies manage them. Sources at the Elysee have said that France is adopting a new philosophy that is centred on engaging in the region without having to fight at the front lines.
2. Change in paternal discourse:
France’s new strategy reflects a change in discourse concerning Africa. The new approach avoids paternal tone in an attempt to relief some of the rising anti-French sentiment. Macrons has assured Africans that France wants to build a more ‘respectful’ relations and listen to demands of African countries.
3. Use of soft power:
Paris is shifting to soft power and away from direct military involvement, which was articulated by Macron admitting France’s receding influence in Africa. He also stressed on the importance of the role of businesses, civil society, and sports in building a cultural bridge between the two sides. Engaging African youth was another key point made by the French president, who recognised the youth’s rejection of France’s military presence in their country. To this end, Macron gifted Gabon’s president a rare collection of folklore music and novels collected by a French researcher in Gabon during the 1950s.
Also, France is looking to invest in African migrants who mostly end up there. 20% of migration ends up in France, reaching about 10 million migrants a year. Paris is therefore looking to change how it approaches migration by building better prospects for them in their countries.
In conclusion, Macron is showing that France wants to change its approach towards Africa. Yet he’s still being met with skepticism by his African counterparts amid rising anti-French sentiment despite Macron giving a speech where he promised stronger ties with African partners based on mutual respect. But evidence on the ground may give Africans every reason to doubt him, and France’s presence in Africa may not lead to tangible change in the near future.