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Macron revives France's partnership with China in Africa

Mark Schiefelbein/Pool/AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a joint press briefing at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 9, 2018.

After years at a standstill, France-China cooperation in Africa could finally materialise on security and climate issues. French President Emmanuel Macron suggested as much in Beijing this week.


It wasn’t at the top of Macron’s agenda on his visit to China. Indeed, the French president mentioned it, virtually in passing, in a January 9 speech alongside his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. But the announced partnership between the China Development Bank and France’s agency for development (AFD) to support projects fighting climate change could kickstart France-China cooperation on the continent.

“We have decided to deepen our concertation on Africa, where China is more and more present,” Macron said. “And the goal is to elicit projects that are genuinely useful to the future of the continent and that meet Africans’ aspirations. That is the spirit of the framework agreement signed before our eyes a few moments ago between the China Development Bank and the AFD, with climate as a strategic priority.”

The statement, in placing greater emphasis on aid and development policy in Africa than on economics, may well mark a turning point in France’s will to work with China in Africa.

Indeed, cooperation between the pair on the continent has never taken concrete shape. The “France-China partnerships in third-party markets” that were launched officially in July 2015 and which were primarily aimed at Asia and Africa, encouraged French and Chinese firms to “go beyond traditional subcontracting, co-production and co-financing schemes” and bank on synergies.

‘Initial project didn’t work’

The trouble is, despite much discussion on the subject in 2016, no project came to fruition. The China-France-Africa summit slated for Dakar and delayed repeatedly over the past two years simply never took place. The Élysée Palace had indeed mentioned a project in Namibia before Macron’s trip to China, but could not elaborate on it.

“The initial project did not work. It was virtually stillborn,” Thierry Pairault, research director emeritus at the CNRS who specialises in China-Africa relations, tells FRANCE 24. “It encountered major institutional obstacles and the firms themselves were not interested. The large multinational companies already established there didn’t need it and the small and medium-sized businesses that might have been tempted were skittish because they didn’t know how to protect their interests in the face of the Chinese. The trust was not there.”

And yet, on paper at least, there was a certain logic to developing a three-way partnership in certain sectors. But there also had to be a willingness to seek out complementary firms not at risk of having their techniques or clientele poached.

“All that had to be done was to search in relatively politically neutral sectors that could benefit all three parties,” estimates Pairault, citing cotton farming. “This could be done with French expertise organising the small independent producers in partnership with Chinese firms transforming [the product] on site using Chinese machines. There were phenomenal things to be done in the agricultural sector.”

Sahel force

Faced with such logjams, Macron changed tack. Rather than talking to private firms, he wagered on public investment banks to get results on the one hand and to ensure on the other that those projects were useful for development in Africa.

For now, progress is most likely on counter-terrorism cooperation. “We are also in agreement about working together to bolster the G5 Sahel," Macron said Tuesday, referring to the joint military force France has been actively promoting in recent months with five countries in the Sahel region (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad). Aimed at fighting terrorism in that strategic region, the force has set a goal of comprising 10,000 personnel, but it remains short on financing.

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Beijing, for its part, needs to secure China’s investments in Africa and its initiative for a so-called new Silk Road. The country is already committed militarily in the Sahel with the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, as well as in several other peacekeeping missions on the continent. It also opened its first military base abroad in Djibouti in 2017. China is slated to contribute to the G5 Sahel force’s financing, although on that issue as well neither Macron nor Xi put forward a figure or a schedule with more detail.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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