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Amid France's Africa Reset, Old Ties Underscore Challenge of Breaking With Past


French President Emmanuel Macron gives a thumbs up after concluding his visit to the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg on May 29, 2021.

After outlining a fresh chapter in French-African relations, with calls for massive economic support for Africa and visits to Rwanda and South Africa last week, President Emmanuel Macron is back home to confront familiar and thorny problems in France’s former colonies, underscoring the challenges of breaking with the past.

At front and center is Mali, buffeted by its fifth coup since independence from Paris in 1960 — and the second in less than a year. To the east, Chad is also unsettled by a controversial political transition, following the April death of longstanding leader Idriss Deby. Both countries are key allies in France’s counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel.

Russians and Malian flags are waved by protesters in Bamako, Mali, during a demonstration against French influence in the country on May 27, 2021.
Russians and Malian flags are waved by protesters in Bamako, Mali, during a demonstration against French influence in the country on May 27, 2021.

Farther south, Paris fears Russia’s growing influence in the Central African Republic — among that of other newer foreign powers — including Moscow's alleged role in fueling anti-French sentiments.

Taken together, some analysts say, these developments, combined with France’s legacy in Africa — and, in some cases, Macron’s own actions — may make it harder to deliver on his promises of change.

“Emmanuel Macron is trapped in a contradictory position,” Africa specialist Antoine Glaser told French television station TV5 Monde.

“He wants to get out of FrancAfrique by turning to anglophone countries like Rwanda and South Africa,” he said, referring to the tangle web of business and political interests with France’s former colonies, “but he’s bogged down in the francophone countries.”

Moving forward, looking back

Macron states otherwise, as he looks for new ways and new places to exert French influence on the continent. At a May summit in Paris, he called on richer countries to invest massively in Africa’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and echoed Washington’s call for a patent waiver on COVID-19 vaccines — calls he reiterated during his visit to South Africa on Friday. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the virus.

The French leader also organized a special donors’ conference on Sudan — another country outside Paris’ traditional sphere of influence — and announced plans to cancel Khartoum’s $5 billion bilateral debt.

Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, left, Chad President Idriss Deby, center, and France President Emmanuel Macron arrive for a picture during the G5 Sahel summit on June 30, 2020, in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, left, Chad President Idriss Deby, center, and France President Emmanuel Macron arrive for a picture during the G5 Sahel summit on June 30, 2020, in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

The calls fit into Macron’s broader reset of relations with the continent since taking office in 2017. Visiting Burkina Faso later that year, he promised to return plundered artifacts to former colonies, a pledge several other European governments have since echoed.

“For sure, colonialization has left a strong imprint,” Macron told the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper, in a lengthy interview published Sunday. “But I also told young people in Ouagadougou (in 2017) that today’s problems aren’t linked to colonialism, they’re more caused by bad governance by some, and corruption by others. These are African subjects, and relations with France should not exonerate leaders from their own responsibilities.” Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso.

Yet Macron has also gone further than his predecessors in acknowledging France’s blame for past injustices. He set up fact-finding commissions to examine Paris’ role in Algeria’s war of independence and in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. While both reports were critical, Macron ruled out official apologies.

Still, he has followed some of the reconciliatory actions recommended by the Algeria commission. And in Kigali on Thursday, he turned the problem around, asking Rwandans instead to forgive France for its role in the mass killings, while saying France had not been an accomplice in them.

"His words were something more valuable than an apology. They were the truth,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said of Macron’s speech, calling it “an act of tremendous courage.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, center, and his wife Brigitte Macron, left, welcome Chadian Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke, right, for a dinner with leaders of African states, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, May 17, 2021.
French President Emmanuel Macron, center, and his wife Brigitte Macron, left, welcome Chadian Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke, right, for a dinner with leaders of African states, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, May 17, 2021.

Continuation or break?

Yet in Rwanda and elsewhere, Macron’s actions have also drawn controversy—reflecting, some analysts say, a continuation rather than a break with the past. Some question Macron’s visit to Kigali, for example, noting its increasingly authoritarian leader.

In Chad, where Macron was the only Western leader to attend Deby’s funeral, Paris appeared to initially endorse the military council that took over after Deby’s death, and which is headed by his son. While the body has promised eventual elections, some opposition activists claim its existence amounts to an effective coup d’etat.

Days later, Macron appeared to backtrack, saying France supported a democratic and inclusive transition and not a “succession plan.”

“For too long, France’s view remained short-sighted and purely military: Chad was no more than a provider of troops for regional wars,” Chad expert Jerome Tubiana wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Deby’s death, he added, was a potential game changer Paris should seize.

“If France renews with a new junta the same deal it had with Deby — fighters in exchange for political, financial, and military backing — it will miss that long-awaited turning point when democratic change in Chad could actually become a reality,” he added.

In Mali, by contrast, France and the European Union have denounced the country’s latest coup as “unacceptable.” Macron warned West African leaders they could not support a country without “democratic legitimacy or transition,” he told Le Journal du Dimanche, threatening to pull French troops from the country if it tipped to “radical Islamism.”

The president has long floated an eventual drawdown of France’s 5,100-strong counter-insurgency operation in the Sahel, hoping also to beef up other European forces in the region, to help shoulder the fight.

But analyst Glaser believes Mali’s latest military takeover could make it harder, not easier, to fulfill that goal.

“This situation puts him in a delicate position,” Glaser said of Macron. “He wants to get out of FrancAfrique and keeps saying … that the solution in Africa is political, not military. So, when Mali faces major problems politically, his whole strategy is undermined.”

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