At the end of July 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron concluded a tour of Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. And he is going to Algeria from August 25 to 27.
At first glance, his choice of country is difficult to understand. Three former French colonies – Cameroon, Benin and Algeria – and one former Portuguese colony, Guinea-Bissau, look very different.
Nonetheless, taken together, Macron’s visits tell a story in which France is doing penance for its colonial crimes while simultaneously trying to maintain the influence it gained through colonialism.
These two themes also emerged during the New France Africa Summit in October 2021 in Montpellier. There, Macron promised investments in African tech startups as a way to increase the influence of French private companies, while promoting researcher Achille Mbembe’s report on the new relationship between France and Africa.
Macron had another chance to show his good relations with African leaders during the European Union-African Union summit in February 2022. This was organized by Macron – France then held the presidency of the European Union – and the president of the Council of the EU, Charles Michel.
Penitential efforts have been on display during each of the recent country visits. During a press conference with Cameroonian President Paul Biya, Macron said that the French archives on colonial rule in Cameroon would be opened “in their entirety”. He said he hoped historians from both countries would work together to investigate the “painful moments”.
In Benin, the French president accompanied the Beninese president, Patrice Talon, during the visit of an exhibition devoted to the royal treasures of Abomey. These had been stolen by France 139 years ago and were returned in November 2021. In Guinea-Bissau, he announced the opening of a French school and a sports exchange program, in accordance with its increased emphasis on cultural diplomacy.
The effort to maintain influence was also evident in all three visits. With the diminishing presence of French troops in Mali, Paris is looking for new military options and hopes to find those with Macron’s hosts. In Benin, the French president spoke about security, while in Yaoundé he reaffirmed that France remained committed to the security of the continent.
In Guinea-Bissau, Macron said France must “contribute to the fight against terrorism everywhere in the region”.
In my view, Macron is exploiting the increased call for the more fundamental decolonization of African societies as a cover to exert continued influence on the continent.
Rectify the colonial past
The decolonial justice project has recently been used by other former colonial powers to restore their image in Africa. Belgium recently returned a tooth to Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister, 61 years after enabling his assassination.
Rectifying the colonial past has become a popular way for northern governments to do their diplomacy in Africa. In the past, there were calls for new relationships and a forgetting of the colonial past. Today, heads of state are showing their determination to confront colonial crimes head-on. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for example, has spoken of the need to become “equal partners” and recognize
generations of Africans whose destiny had been determined by the colonial powers.
In my opinion, this is a clever way of reversing the scenario used by the Russians and the Chinese. They point out that they never colonized the continent, a claim already made in the 1960s when Zhou Enlai and Leonid Brezhnev visited the continent.
In his attempt to reset that narrative, Macron went so far as to call Russia “one of the last imperial colonial powers” for its invasion of Ukraine.
It’s all part of the cynical twist of Macron’s version of decolonization, which seeks to repair the old while rolling back the cause of decolonization through intervention.
A renewed interest in Africa
What separates France from the United States and Belgium is that the Élysée is trying to compensate for a declining military position in Mali. His troops leave and are replaced by Russian mercenaries, the so-called Wagner Group.
France intervened in northern Mali in 2013 with Operation Serval. Paris has also brought in allied countries like Belgium and Sweden to provide additional capacity and training. The objective was to chase Islamist fighters from the Sahel.
The Cold War logic that has been imposed on this trip, however, is far too simplistic. It neglects the regional politics of West Africa, where the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has increasingly felt the need to intervene against the coups that have rocked the region: Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, Guinea in September 2021, Burkina Faso in January 2022 and the failed coup attempt in Guinea-Bissau in February 2022.
West African coups, rather than intervention in Ukraine, also explain what brought Macron to Guinea-Bissau, which took over the rotating ECOWAS presidency in July. The organization lifted the sanctions when the Malian junta promised to hold elections in February 2024.
ECOWAS also succeeded in reaching an agreement with Burkina Faso’s military junta on a timetable for the transition to democracy. A return to civilian rule is scheduled for July 2024.
With a combined promise of increased cultural investment and weaponry for Guinea-Bissau, Macron is seeking to meddle in the regional organization. And this despite the fact that France has “always respected” the position of ECOWAS in regional affairs. This is an easy way for the Élysée to cover West Africa without having to engage in shuttle diplomacy to various West African capitals when it has a vital interest to protect.
Keeping the focus on Ukraine and Lavrov’s mission was therefore in the interest of the French president, who was also asked about why African countries had not received arms deliveries as well. easily than Ukraine. Arms delivery could then be presented as something positive, rather than a disastrous policy that almost never works.
As always, it will be ordinary people who will pay the price because they are forced to live in increasingly heavily armed societies. The uprising in northern Mali in 2013, which Macron now seeks to manage through ECOWAS, was the consequence of the military intervention by France and its allies in Libya in 2011 and the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
This could set these countries back for years, preventing them from joining the African Lions economies – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria and South Africa – countries that have been shunned by Macron.