Macron embarks on whirlwind East Africa tour

Eduardo Soteras, AFP | St. Mercurius Orthodox Church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, March 7, 2019.

French President Emmanuel Macron will embark on a four-day tour of East Africa on Monday evening, during which he will visit Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya.


Macron's first overseas trip in over a month aims to strengthen his country’s diplomatic, economic and cultural ties in the region. He has been kept at home in France by his “grand debate” on national policy, which he launched in December in response to ongoing “Yellow Vest” protests across the country.

The French president will kick off his tour with a 12-hour stop in Djibouti and a meeting with President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. The two countries have been close since Djibouti’s independence from France in 1977.

“It’s an historic partner in the region, it would have been strange not to go there,” the Élysée presidential palace told FRANCE 24’s sister station Radio France Internationale.

But Djibouti also has tremendous military value to France. Strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea, the tiny country is host to more foreign bases than any other in the world. France has an especially strong presence there, with 1,450 soldiers at five operational facilities.

Macron will be the first French president to visit Djibouti in nearly a decade. His trip may be partly motivated by concerns over China’s growing influence in the region. In 2017, the Chinese military established its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Meanwhile, Chinese firms have invested heavily in infrastructure projects across the continent.

“We’re also going to East Africa because it’s a competitive region, especially with China. We’re coming with a different, more positive project that is perhaps a little less purely mercantile,” the Élysée added.

Culture and business in Ethiopia

Macron's next stop will be neighbouring Ethiopia, still reeling after this weekend’s deadly plane crash outside of the capital Addis Ababa. All 157 people on board were killed, including seven French nationals.

The French president will begin his visit with a trip to the northern town of Lalibela, known for its stunning 13th century rock-hewn churches that were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. Macron promised Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in October that he would propose plans to restore and renovate the churches, currently threatened by erosion caused by mass tourism.

Lalibela locals hope that Macron and Ahmed’s visit will result in a new plan, money and expertise for the complex's renewal.

Macron will then meet with Ethiopia’s first female president Sahle-Work Zewde, and the only current female African head of state, elected in October last year. Sahle-Work has a longstanding personal relationship with France. She attended university in the southern French city of Montpellier before later serving as Ethiopia’s ambassador to France.

While in Addis, Macron will be joined by a delegation of businessmen. Ethiopia has quickly risen to become France’s third market in sub-Saharan Africa, with the largest trade surplus in the region at €791.6 million in 2017.

The French president will also visit the African Union (AU) headquarters, where he will discuss sustainable development.

Climate action in Kenya

The final leg of Macron’s tour will take him to Kenya’s capital Nairobi, where he will attend the United Nations Environment Assembly.

The event is expected to bring together more than 4,700 people, including heads of state, ministers and business leaders to explore creative solutions for “environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production”.

Macron and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will also co-chair a summit of the One Planet Coalition on the sidelines of the assembly. The meeting will showcase innovative projects to accelerate the global shift to a low-carbon economy.

Beyond climate action, Macron and Kenyatta are expected to discuss a range of issues, including funding for AU’s mission to combat the Islamist militant group al Shabaab in neighbouring Somalia (AMISOM), as well as prospective transport and development projects.

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