In late July 2022 French president Emmanuel Macron concluded a tour of Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. And he visits Algeria between 25 and 27 August.
At first glance, his choice of countries is difficult to understand. Three former French colonies – Cameroon, Benin and Algeria – and a former Portuguese colony, Guinea-Bissau, seem very different.
Nevertheless, 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 at the New France Africa Summit in October 2021 in Montpelier. There, Macron promised investments in African technology startups as a way to increase the influence of French private business, while also promoting the scholar Achille Mbembe’s report on the new relationship between France and Africa.
Macron got another chance to show off his good relationship with African leaders at the European Union-African Union summit of February 2022. This was hosted by Macron – France held the presidency of the European Union at the time – and EU Council president Charles Michel.
The penance efforts were on show in each of the recent country visits. At a press conference with Cameroon’s president Paul Biya, Macron said France’s archives on colonial rule in Cameroon would be opened “in full”. He said he hoped historians from both countries would work together to investigate “painful moments”.
In Benin the French president accompanied Benin’s president, Patrice Talon, on a visit to an exhibition devoted to the royal treasures of Abomey. These had been robbed 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 programme, in line with his increased emphasis on cultural diplomacy.
The effort to maintain influence was evident in all three visits too. With the presence of French troops in Mali dwindling, Paris is looking for new military options and hoping to find those with Macron’s hosts. In Benin the French president therefore talked about security while in Yaoundé he restated France remained committed to the security of the continent.
In Guinea-Bissau Macron declared France should “contribute to the fight against terrorism everywhere in the region”.
In my view Macron exploits the increased call for the more fundamental decolonisation of African societies as a cover to exercise continued influence on the continent.
Rectifying the colonial past
The project for decolonial justice has recently been used by other former colonial powers to brush up their image in Africa. Belgium recently returned a tooth of Patrice Lumumba, the 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. Now heads of state showcase their willingness to face colonial crimes head on. US secretary of state Antony Blinken, for instance, talked about the need to become “equal partners” and acknowledge
generations of Africans whose destiny had been determined by colonial powers.
In my view this is a smart way to flip the script the Russians and the Chinese employ. They stress that they never colonised the continent, a claim already put forward in the 1960s when Zhou Enlai and Leonid Brezhnev visited the continent.
In his bid to reset this narrative, Macron went as far as to brand 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 decolonisation, which seeks to repair the old while setting back the cause of decolonisation through intervention.
Renewed interest in Africa
What separates France from the US and Belgium is that the Elysée is trying to offset a dwindling military position in Mali. Its troops are leaving and are being replaced by Russian mercenaries, the so-called Wagner Group.
France intervened in the north of Mali in 2013 with Operation Serval. Paris also brought in allied nations like Belgium and Sweden to provide additional capacity and training. The aim was to push out Islamic fighters in the Sahel.
The Cold War logic that has been imposed on this trip, however, is far too simplistic. It overlooks 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 plagued 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.
The West African coups, rather than the intervention in Ukraine, also explain what brought Macron to Guinea-Bissau, which took over the rotating presidency of ECOWAS in July. The organisation lifted sanctions when the junta in Mali promised to hold elections in February 2024.
ECOWAS has also managed to reach an agreement with Burkina Faso’s military junta on a timetable for a transition back to democracy. A return to civilian rule is scheduled for July 2024.
With a combined promise of increased cultural investments and weapons for Guinea-Bissau, Macron is seeking to meddle with the regional organisation. That’s despite claiming France “always respected” the position of ECOWAS in regional matters. It is an easy way for the Élysée to blanket West Africa without having to engage in shuttle diplomacy to different 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 conveniently asked questions about why African countries had not received weapon shipments as easily as Ukraine. The delivery of weapons could then be presented as something positive, rather than a disastrous policy that hardly ever works.
As always, it will be regular people who will pay the price because they are forced to live in increasingly heavily armed societies. The uprising in the north of Mali in 2013, which Macron is now seeking to manage through ECOWAS, was the consequence of the 2011 military intervention by France and its allies in Libya and the subsequent overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
It might set these countries back for years, preventing them from joining the African Lion economies – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, and South Africa – countries that were avoided by Macron.
Frank Gerits, Research Fellow at the University of the Free State, South Africa and Assistant Professor in the History of International Relations, Utrecht University.