Macron’s soft power push in Africa is key to 'making France great again'

Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP | Macron speaks before a G5 Sahel Force meeting on July 2 in Nouakchott as Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Chad's President Idriss Deby look on (background, L to R).

President Emmanuel Macron arrives Tuesday in Nigeria on his latest soft power mission while attempting to reassure African nations that France’s interest in the continent is more than just colonialism revisited.


Africa has emerged as a cornerstone of Macron’s effort to boost France’s global influence. A high-profile November trip to West Africa was aimed at redefining France's relationship with its former colonies Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, and marked the first official visit by a French president to the Anglophone nation of Ghana.

Macron has made clear that vigorous French engagement on the world stage would be a priority of his administration, declaring in no uncertain terms that “France is back.”

And he has largely succeeded in reversing France’s waning influence after just a year in office, according to Christian Lequesne, a specialist in French foreign policy at Sciences Po university in Paris. “We went from being a country in decline to a country that’s moving forward, full of energy,” Lequesne told FRANCE 24 in an interview last month.

In his first-ever annual address to France's 170 ambassadors in August, Macron reiterated plans to keep the African continent at the core of his foreign policy, stating his conviction that “the future of the world will largely be played out in Africa". He has also established a new Presidential Council for Africa, whose 11 inaugural members will advise him on African issues and help him prepare for visits to the continent.

France has a long and fraught history with Africa, whose last former French colonies achieved independence in the 1960s. Recent attempts to reboot relations on a more equal footing have sometimes been undermined by French leaders’ tone-deaf comments and other missteps.

But so far Macron seems to be putting his money where his mouth is. On a trip to Senegal in February Macron pledged €200 million for the Global Partnership for Education, which helps fund schoolchildren in developing countries.

At the May 24-26 Viva Technology (VivaTech) summit in Paris, Macron announced the French Development Bank would create a €65 million fund to promote digital startups in Africa. He strolled the stands at the Porte de Versailles convention centre with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and took selfies with African entrepreneurs, photo ops that seemed perfectly designed to highlight both Macron's commitment to the continent and to making France a centre of global tech.

Fostering ‘la francophonie’

Pushing for a resurgence in the use of the French language worldwide has emerged as another facet of Macron’s bid to expand Gallic influence. On his November trip to Burkina Faso, Macron appealed to young Africans not to reject French in favour of English, predicting that the language of Molière would be making a comeback.

"To refuse the French language in order to make English fashionable on the African continent is to be blind to the future," Macron said.

"If we go about it right, France will be the first language in Africa – and maybe even the world – in the coming decades.”

This linguistic revival is already in the pipeline, if Macron has anything to say about it. In March he unveiled a strategy for promoting the French language globally, particularly in Africa.

>> Macron unveils strategy to promote French language abroad

The International Francophone Organisation (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie) estimates that the number of French speakers in the world will surpass 700 million by 2050 as a result of population growth, and 80 percent of them will be in Africa. The proportion of French speakers would correspondingly rise from 3 percent to 8 percent of the global population.

The French language, Macron said in Burkina Faso, “is no longer solely French but also, maybe even more so, African".

But Macron’s effort has already met with resistance, with some saying the move carries unpleasant echoes of colonialism.

Colonial resentments

Macron, 40, has tried to offset criticism that France is looking to re-establish a hold over Africa by saying he belongs to a new generation that seeks equal partnerships, and not domination, on the continent.

“I am from a generation that doesn’t come to tell Africans what to do,” Macron said in a November speech to university students in Ougadougou, emphasising that his youth made him a new kind of leader.

“I will be alongside those who believe that Africa is neither a lost continent nor one that needs to be saved,” he said.

Nevertheless, dozens of local youths clashed with police before Macron’s arrival, with stones targeting the vehicles in his delegation and an unsuccessful grenade attack launched on French troops. Protesters carried signs reading, “Down with new colonialism,” while police responded by firing teargas into the crowds.

>> Macron: 'I am of a generation that doesn't tell Africans what to do'

Macron is not the first French president to try to reset relations with Africa. His predecessor François Hollande declared on a visit to Senegal in 2012 that “La Francafrique is over”, referring to longstanding attempts by French officials to influence African leaders and events even after independence from France.

But a long history of French support for governments perceived as corrupt remains a major point of contention. Civil society groups and NGOs have accused Paris of complicity in undermining human rights as well as economic development in places such as Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon and beyond, whenever it suits French political or business interests.

Compounding these resentments is France's status as a favourite destination for the ill-gotten gains of African elites with a taste for Parisian opulence. Others have been accused of illegally funneling cash to French political figures: Former president Nicolas Sarkozy is facing court over allegedly accepting generous campaign contributions from late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

>> ‘Playboy’ son of Equatorial Guinea leader faces Paris corruption charges

Cultural exchange

In a gesture of cultural goodwill, Macron has pledged to return many of the African antiquities currently – and controversially – held by France. He has tasked art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr with reviewing how African artifacts can be returned to their countries of origin.

“I want the conditions to be created within five years for the temporary or permanent return of Africa’s heritage to Africa,” the French president said in Burkina Faso, adding that such works “cannot just remain in European private collections and museums”.

Macron will attend "A Celebration of African Culture" on Tuesday night in Lagos, where he will officially announce France's plans to host the Season of African Cultures 2020, an event highlighting music, fashion and theatre.

Macron will also visit the New Afrika Shrine nightclub, founded by Nigerian music icon Fela Kuti, becoming the first president to enter a venue long known for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Kuti’s trademark “Afrobeat” style features anti-establishment sentiments denouncing political corruption, and Macron’s presence is likely designed to bolster his credentials as a modern European leader who is ready to make a break with the past.

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