Africa Watch – Paris stares at the backbench

13th March 2023

French President, Emmanuel Macron, reiterated that Paris has no intention of returning to past policies of interfering in Africa. This comes as Burkina Faso scrapped a 1961 military assistance agreement with France, a move that comes weeks after it told the French ambassador and troops supporting its anti-jihadist campaign to exit the country. The AFP cited a 28 February correspondence from the Burkinabe foreign ministry to Paris which denounced the agreement, as well as the deal’s two “appendixes.” The agreement is one of the country’s legal bases for French military support.

Mr Macron’s “Africa Reckoning Tour” is the hallmark of the difference between the Eastern and Western approaches to reckoning with the past. While slavery and colonialism are enterprises carried out by many societies, only Western societies, particularly the old European colonial empires, have bothered to acknowledge the effect of their empire and apologise for “sins” such as genocide and unbridled imperialism. This was and has not been achieved out of the goodness of their hearts. In France’s case, they had to do it the hard way, by being evicted kicking and screaming.

The reasons why Francafrique is tailing off in a manner that would make Charles de Gaulle turn in his grave are hinged on the demographics of current realities. Mr Macron was born in 1977, the same year the last French African colony — Djibouti — gained independence; thus, he has no memory of the Algerian independence war. Neither does he have any memory of France’s actions in Guinea when its leader Sekou Toure opted against any economic and security arrangement with Paris when it gained independence in 1962.

Similarly, this is the reality for many people, not just in Africa, where the median age is 19, but specifically in French-speaking Africa. Burkina Faso, for example, boasts the world’s youngest head of state, Captain Ibrahim Traore, who is 34.

The brutal reality for Paris policymakers is that the era where French rule is looked upon with an odd mix of fondness and resentment — a pastime of the older generation, is gone. The current generation has few good memories of France. For them, the lack of good governance from a domestic political class typically shored up by Paris has been the death knell of its legitimacy in the region. This is why coups in Francophone Africa are often popular and why coupists attempt to end military assistance agreements with France are widely regarded.

Mr Macron has further muddied the picture by acknowledging the role of neocolonialism in the fraught relationship between Paris and its former vassals and blaming geopolitical rivals such as China, Russia and Turkey for using propaganda to stir anti-French sentiments. It reached borderline absurd levels with the depiction of French soldiers in the latest instalment of Marvel’s Wakanda film. The lesson Macron and his colleagues fail to learn is that Wagner/Kremlin, Ankara and Beijing are not the problem when they amplify French missteps. There would have been nothing to amplify if there had been no missteps.

On the one hand, the Champs Elysee cannot condemn a coup in Mali in the strongest terms and, on the other, rush down to N’djamena to support a young dictator who came to power by bypassing the constitutional line of succession upon his father’s death. Such policy inconsistencies and a lack of improvement in security-challenged Sahel states despite French military support put Mr Macron in an unenviable position. His promise of future non-interference will only be taken seriously when it is reflected in relations with more welcoming states such as Chad and Côte d’Ivoire.

France has a shrinking window to reset relations with Africa genuinely. That window will disappear when the young Ivioriens begin to be attracted to the revolutionary ideals of their neighbours in Burkina Faso. And this might not take long.