ANALYSIS: Macron’s unrequited love affair with Africa

As French president Emmanuel Macron embarks on another trip to countries in Africa, John Lichfield looks at why French-African relations are at such a low, despite unprecedented efforts from Paris.

ANALYSIS: Macron's unrequited love affair with Africa
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba in Libreville, on Wednesday. Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP

President Emmanuel Macron has a deep affection for and obsession with Africa. Friends say that the love affair began when he was an intern in the French embassy in Nigeria in 2002.

He was sent there by the French, political finishing school, ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration). Macron has since abolished ENA but he is constantly drawn back to Africa.

On Wednesday he began a five-day swing through four African countries. This is his 18th visit to the continent in less than six years as President – roughly one visit for every four months.

There is a great Macronian paradox here – one of many. The President has expended more time and energy than any of his predecessors into trying to rebuild France’s relationship with Africa and especially with the former French colonies.

And yet the French presence in Africa has never been so rejected. France’s right to a special role in Africa is now contested both by the continent’s selfish political elites and by the tens of millions of young Africans who aspire to better governments and better lives.

France has been all but booted out of Mali and Central Africa, It is in the process of being ejected from Burkina Faso. Something similar is happening in Niger and Chad.

Even in the big, former West African colonies like Senegal and Ivory Coast, French political and cultural influence is increasingly rejected or despised.

In part, but only in part, this is the work of Russian propaganda. The Russia Today TV channel and Sputnik news agency have an enormous following in all Francophone central and west Africa countries.

They seed conspiracy theories about persistent French “colonial” interference. They work in de facto alliance with the Wagner mercenary army, run on the Kremlin’s behalf by the billionaire oligarch (the crook and former cook) Yevgeny Prigozhin.

The Wagner army has already replaced the French military as the foreign gendarme in Mali, Central Africa and Burkina Faso. It has been implicated in massacres of civilians and the seizure of gold and diamonds.

Bizarrely, anti-French propaganda in Africa is now also being spread by Hollywood. In the latest film in the Wakanda series (Wakanda Forever), set in a fictional, never-colonised African country, the ‘baddies’ are the French army. The world outside Wakanda is dominated by two empires, American (quite bad) and French (very bad indeed).

But the unholy and unthinking alliance between Hollywood and the Kremlin is not solely responsible for the surge in anti-French feeling in Africa. It merely exploits and deepens it.

An unhealthy and corrupt relationship existed until the 1990s between Paris and political and economic elites in France’s former African colonies. This system – known as Françafrique – was partially, but not entirely, dismantled by Macron’s predecessors.

The often clumsy French efforts to fight corruption and foster democracy (while preserving French economic interests) mean that France is now resented by both elites and masses. Something similar is true of France’s military efforts to contain Islamist insurgents in the Sahel. The rebels have come to be seen (wrongly) as more insurgent than Islamist.

In sum, the elites detest French efforts to restrain their power. The masses see that the elites remain in power and blame the French.

Macron has taken several important steps to try to create a new relationship to replace Françafrique. In a speech in Ouagadougou in 2017, he said France no longer had a self-interested Africa policy. There would, he said, be a “new partnership”.

He has since started the process of returning an extraordinary treasury of African art looted in colonial times and held in French museums. France will soon return to Ivory Coast the “tambour parleur” (talking drum), a three-metres long, wooden, man-crocodile capable of sending messages for 30 kilometres. It was stolen in 2016.

Macron also says that he is ready to end French involvement in the so-called “African franc” or CFA, a shared currency (or actually two regional currencies), which is tied to the Euro and guaranteed by Paris. The CFA is largely beneficial to its member countries. It has, nonetheless, become one of the most fertile sources of the lurid, anti-French conspiracy theories which circulate in Africa.

Before he set out for Gabon, the two Congo’s and Angola, Macron made a speech in which he renewed his 2017 promise. He announced that the remaining French military bases on the continent would be placed under shared control. He outlined a new legal framework to hasten the return of stolen artefacts.

It is telling, however, that Macron spoke in advance to avoid having to say much while on the road. The four countries he is visiting are among the most autocratic in Africa.

The visit will, as Le Monde pointed out, plunge Macron into the “heart of the contradictions” of his Africa policy. He knows that he must avoid lecturing political elites on democracy. And yet, if he fails to do so, how can he persuade young Africans that France is on the side of change?

“Whatever we do it will never be enough and often misinterpreted,” said one presidential adviser wearily.

Achille Mbempe, the Camerounian political scientist and adviser to Macron, says that a long and difficult road lies ahead. He told the magazine, Le Point: “The president wants a dialogue but the Africans refuse because they fear they will be manipulated. They say Macron is insincere but they offer no alternative. Do they prefer military coup d’etats? Jihadist violence? Third terms of office? Sons succeeding fathers?”.’

Macron can always look forward to his return on Sunday to the comparative simplicities of French politics and pension reform.

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OPINION: Despite pension reform passing, Macron faces four years as a ‘blocked’ president

The president on Wednesday tried to sell the French people on his new ideas for the next four years of his term in office, but John Lichfield sees little chance of him being able to progress his agenda, even after pension protests have subsided.

OPINION: Despite pension reform passing, Macron faces four years as a 'blocked' president

President Emmanuel Macron has finally made the case for pension reform – six days after his government used special powers to ram it through the National Assembly.

His appearance on the 1pm TV news on Wednesday was both a typical Macron performance and rather strange.

Strange, first of all, because he chose to speak to the lunchtime news bulletins, which are traditionally dominated by old ways making lace or new ways of making cheese.

Strange also because Macron made a rather good case for his pension reform – and it is largely “his” reform – after choosing to evade the debate for months.

There have been six days of sometimes violent protest since the pension bill – gradually increasing France’s official retirement age from 62 to 64 – was pushed through the Assembly without a “normal” vote. There will be a ninth day of nationwide strikes and marches on Thursday.

Macron’s 40-minute interview was not pitched at the strikers or violent protesters. Short of a capitulation, he knew that they had no interest in what he might say.

The interview was pitched at a notional silent majority of French people who detest pension reform but also now want to go on with their lives. Hence the choice of the 1pm TV news bulletins. They are watched by an elderly, provincial audience. The presenters mostly skirt controversy (and the news) to celebrate a universal and eternal France.

In other words, Macron is trying to play a long game. He is waiting for the storm to pass. He is counting on a public backlash to gather against the disruption of the strikes and the violence of a minority of protesters.

The President offered – again somewhat belatedly – a list of the more agreeable reforms which might be completed in the final four years of his mandate if normal political life resumes.

There could, he said, be new legislation to force large companies to share “exceptional profits” with their workers rather than increase their bosses’ salaries or buy back company shares.

You can listen to John Lichfield talk about the political crisis engulfing France in our new Talking France podcast on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts. Download it HERE or listen on the link below.


He invited the unions to put the toys back into the pram and start a new “dialogue” with the government on ways of easing the final working years of people in physically demanding jobs. He did not mention that similar measures once existed but were dismantled during his first term.

His defence of the pension reform was drawn from the “blood, sweat and tears” school of political rhetoric (but accurate enough). France could not preserve its posterity and social model if it persisted in working less than its partners and competitors, he said.

What did people expect of him, he asked ? That he should “do as my predecessors did and sweep the dirt under the carpet?”

It is a pity, and a mystery, that Macron not make this case weeks ago. Instead, he chose to leave the selling of the reform to the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, and her ministers, who alternated between describing it as “tough but fair” and a “left-wing” social advance.

On Borne’s future, Macron was not entirely convincing. Many people, including myself, have predicted that she will pay the traditional price of French prime ministers  and will be dumped by Macron within a month or so to try to clear the air or give a new sense of direction to the government.

Macron said, rather curtly, that Borne had his “confidence”, But he also said that he expected her to enlarge her centrist minority government by finding new parliamentary allies from the centre-right or centre-left.

She has tried that before and failed. My interpretation of Macron’s words is that, if she fails again, he will appoint a new prime minister who may be able to lasso a few of the 30 or so centre-right Les Républicains (LR) deputies who supported the reform and then helped to defeat opposition censure motions on Monday.

Les Républicains, the rump of the once-great Gaullist movement, have been shattered by the pensions reform crisis. That may eventually be good news for Macron or his would-be centrist successors. It may, however, also be good news for Marine Le Pen.

So what now?

Macron seemed to say at one point that he was anticipating another two to three weeks of demonstrations and strikes before the protests subsided. He may be right. It is worth recalling, however, that the Giles Jaune (yellow vest) rebellion lasted for six months in 2018-9 before it petered out.

The problem facing the trades unions is to keep the protests going. There will be a huge turn-out for the marches on Thursday but the bigger the numbers, the harder they will be to sustain in the days and weeks ahead.

The open-ended oil refinery and rubbish-collection strikes are beginning to cause real problems – and also real annoyance. It is that swing in the public mood that Macron is relying on.

The pension reform law is being studied by the Constitutional Council. The great and good members of the Council must pronounce within three weeks. If they reject the law (possible but unlikely), Macron will be humiliated and the protests will have no reason to continue.

If they approve the law, the protests may subside.

Either way, I see little chance of Macron getting much domestic business done in his final four years. The pension law was supposed to be the gateway to other reforms.

Despite the would-be, feel-good agenda that the President offered, despite the inevitable decline in protests, there is no obvious way forward.

Pensions may end up, not as the gateway to further reform, but as a flaming barricade.