French President Emmanuel Macron and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa bump elbows after a news conference at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.Photo: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
French President Emmanuel Macron and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa bump elbows after a news conference at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.Photo: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to South Africa a troubled roadshow

By Opinion Time of article published Jun 5, 2021

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By: Koffi M. Kouakou

President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to South Africa last week, while symbolically and diplomatically flattering, was a troubled roadshow. Officially greeted by state fanfare, the state visit was hiding an unofficial double meaning – that France was again in trouble in the rest of Africa and had no great story to tell.

But first, let us give due to the visit. Besides the traditional bilateral niceties between France and South Africa, it was a great opportunity for the French President to follow up with his counterpart President Cyril Ramaphosa on the recent Paris summit on financing African economies where African leaders were invited to find solutions to address the legacy of the post Covid-19 pandemic crisis in Africa.

“The goal of the Paris summit was to find an agreement on four goals: universal access to Covid-19 vaccines, including via production in Africa; strengthening pan-African institutions’ positions and roles within a new international financial architecture; relaunching public and private investment; and supporting large-scale financing of the African private sector.”

Such a post-summit agreement requires money. “The International Monetary Fund estimates that African countries will need $285 billion (R3.9 trillion) in additional financing by 2025, and there is no recovery plan or mechanism in place to secure these resources,” says the summit communique. That is a large sum of money to find and distribute carefully to address an economic recovery for Africa. Where Africa will get this money is still a question mark.

Africa’s broader inability to combat the pandemic remains the issue beyond the Paris meeting. And that’s where Maron’s convening power, as France leads the upcoming six-month term presidency of the Council of the European Union, becomes capital leverage to his visit to South Africa to firm up the call for the concerted action for a New Deal for Africa by European and African leaders.

However, Macron’s whistle-stop visit to South Africa last week was deceptive and rang hollow to anyone familiar with troubling events at home in France and Africa. A frank and honest audit of France’s colonial relationship with Africa is dire. The evidence is screaming out loudly across her former colonies. All of them are politically, economically and socially in crisis since their so-called independence in the 1960s. And since context matters and governs meaning, let us look at France’s context at home and abroad.

These are difficult times for France. At home, Macron faces a great economic downturn with the Covid-19 crisis, and a two-year ongoing protest by the gillet jaunes, a civic society movement that is opposing his deep cuts across the board in social security spending. More recently, the broad swipe letter of unhappy retired French Army officers about his government’s inability to deal with deep crises in France added to his troubles.

Abroad, and especially in Africa, since he became president of France, Macron must juggle the troubled colonial and post-colonial legacy of France in Africa.

In the Central Africa Republic, Mali, Chad, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal among many other countries in Africa where the cruelty and burden of France’s colonial past still burden the present, France is still supporting illegitimate governments and dictatorships. There is a growing so called anti-French sentiment sweeping the continent, that is forcing France to relook at her relationship with Africa.

Geopolitically and economically, France is faced with international pressure from Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and the Arab States, gradually encroaching on its old colonial space – in particular in West and Central Africa, and broadly across the continent.

Russia and Turkey have been more aggressive to challenge France in Africa. While Russia and Turkey project a hard power approach to entering Africa, China presents a soft power approach through large and successful economic and financial investments in Africa.

France has also been struggling to deal with escalating terrorism in the Sahel for the past decade without any great success.

Finally, France’s stubborn role to maintain her unhinged economic power over the colonial monetary system of the CFA system in West and Central Africa has generated anti-French sentiments in Africa. Despite all the trouble at home and abroad, France defends and maintains her indefensible African post-colonial foreign policy.

Macron is the symbol of a new generation of French leaders trying to navigate between a troubled colonial legacy and the new realities of a modern world where Africa has become the last geopolitical and economic frontier for world powers.

So given this background, Macron’s whistle-stop tour in South Africa looks to find new partners for France, and South Africa is among the old-new friends. Macron has been reaching out, successfully so, beyond her former colonial French-speaking sphere.

Yet, last week’s snap visit to South Africa still rings hollow to anyone familiar with France’s colonial past in the world, and particularly, in Africa. The dominant narrative that governed the recent visit of President Macron to Rwanda and South Africa lacks realism. A young French president whose youth and inexperience betray his knowledge of the legacy responsibility, and the burden of French colonial past in Africa.

France continues to have blood on her hands across Africa and she must own up to it, publicly. The quick acknowledgement to considering France’s role in the genocide in Rwanda is not enough. While it is an emotionally apt act to admit by president Macron, France must continue the course of a genuine apology to Africa via a frank and open relationship reset.

No isolated and friendly visit to South Africa will shore up the feeling and colonial legacy trauma that Africans feel about France.

*Koffi M. Kouakou, Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre of Africa China.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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