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Has France Just Taken a Page out of China’s Playbook?

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech to the French community at the residence of the French Ambassador in Libreveille on March 2, 2023. LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP

By Lukas Fiala

With great powers bickering over an impasse in the debt negotiations while reheating the ‘lab leak theory’ in the debate on the origins of COVID-19, it seems we’re once again far away from a constructive solution to some of the developing world’s most pressing issues. 

At times of stalemate, it is thus all the more notable to hear French President Emmanuel Macron calling for a ‘new era’ in France’s engagement across Africa. Speaking at the presidential palace earlier this week, Macron put forth a vision to build a new economic and security partnership with stakeholders across the continent before embarking on a multi-country trip to Gabon, Angola, the DRC and Congo Brazzaville.

Macron’s remarks should be interpreted within France’s challenges during the ‘current era’. Since his first term in office, Macron has attempted to revitalise France’s partnerships across Africa. Some acknowledgment of France’s colonial past was at the heart of Macron’s pivot as seen in the greater willingness to admit to colonial violence or the need to repatriate African cultural artifacts.

But institutional inertia and conservatism in foreign policy and cultural circles have slowed meaningful progress. It’s worth remembering Nicolas Sarkozy’s frankly embarrassing speech at the University of Dakar in 2007, where the former president trivialised colonialism and the effects its extractive institutions had on Africa’s development to understand the ideational environment in which French Africa policy has been formulated. Similarly, the returning of cultural artifacts to Africa has been a periodic preoccupation of many French leaders and is really not much more than a symbolic gesture to gloss over structural hierarchies in the relationship. 

And Macron’s own government has not always been helpful, either. Ministers attending pro-police protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the United States might have courted conservative French voters during Macron’s re-election campaign. But insincerity is not lost on African audiences and has to some extent eroded the president’s credibility when it comes to resetting relations with Africa.  

Furthermore, over the last few years, France has faced growing pressure from regional governments over its military presence across the Sahel. With the French Operation Barkhane drawing to a close last year, the continued resurgence of Islamic extremism across Mali and the wider sub-region in the context of state fragility are emblematic of the failure of international efforts to counter terrorism effectively. 

There are of course other important factors besides external military interventions that have empowered extremist groups. From the longer-term knock-on effects of the collapse of Libya and ensuing flows of weapons into the Sahel to deep seated distrust in local governments and militaries who themselves are often accused of repression, the current situation is the product of a host of different dynamics that produce a complex crisis amplified by omnipresent climate and environmental concerns. Mali’s turn towards Russia after the coup in 2021 and the ensuing deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries to replace French hard power has only lowered the threshold for the use of indiscriminate violence even further. 

But the securitised approach to regional instability that international actors have supported clearly encountered limitations – and those need to be acknowledged. Going forward, it will thus be interesting to see how France will reimagine its relationship with Africa. Macron’s proposed ‘new era’ is supposed to shift France’s military-heavy engagement towards a lighter footprint centering on relationship and capacity building. In this ‘new, balanced relationship’, according to the speech, France’s security presence will be deployed in a ‘partnership-based approach.’ 

In practice, this apparently means that French military facilities on the continent will be ‘co-administered’ with local personnel as the number of stationed French soldiers will decrease. In the words of Macron: ‘Tomorrow, our (military) presence will go through bases, schools, academies, which will be jointly managed’ by France and African counterparts. 

This shift is noteworthy in two respects. First, a move towards emphasizing capacity building as key to sustainable security sector reform echoes China’s approaches to military and defense diplomacy. As Lina Benabdallah writes in her last book on the topic, China has utilized capacity building and knowledge exchange to further diplomatic goals while rendering China the partner of choice for regional governments and militaries. China’s capacity-building efforts include not only formal military diplomacy, but also counter-piracy operations, medical assistance, and invitations for African officers to attend security and defense fora in China.

While China’s ties to African militaries are sometimes exaggerated and still lag behind equivalent US engagement in certain areas, security is merely one part of Beijing’s wider diplomatic commitment to the continent. Indeed, showing up and building relationships has long been a hallmark of China’s diplomacy. Macron’s commitment to fostering genuine ‘partnerships’ echoes Beijing’s attempt to frame these activities as a level-playing field and beneficial for all parties involved, even when that’s of course not always the case. 

France’s future standing on the continent in the context of Russia’s war and China’s emergence from zero-COVID are thus surely on Macron’s mind. Beijing’s growing economic engagement on the continent and the diplomatic dividends it has produced have certainly broadened the policy space of African governments by presenting them with alternative partners to the West. When the UN voted recently to demand Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, three of the four countries Macron is visiting during his trip – Gabon, Angola, and Congo Brazzaville – abstained alongside China and India. 

While Macron’s Africa tour might be a sign of progress, it remains to be seen whether France’s new playbook will be a page-turner. Given the usual preference for talking points over concrete actions in this week’s in international politics, I’m not holding my breath until convinced otherwise.  

Lukas Fiala is the project coordinator for the China Foresight initiative at LSE IDEAS

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