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Playing ball in the ‘World Cup’ of geopolitics

Things have gone sour between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin. They are not on sound diplomatic terms and there are many reasons for it, says the writer. File picture: Ludovic Marin/AFP

Things have gone sour between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin. They are not on sound diplomatic terms and there are many reasons for it, says the writer. File picture: Ludovic Marin/AFP

Published Jun 12, 2022


By Koffi Kouakou

How quickly has the world forgotten that France celebrated a daring football World Cup final win over Croatia, 4-2 on July 15, 2018, in Moscow, about a year after Emmanuel Macron was elected the youngest president of France.

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The celebration was global. Somehow, it was also seen as an African win as France’s young, racially diverse and carefree squad, Les Bleus, was mainly made of players of African origin.

Among them was a young French-born man of mixed origins of a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother. His name, Kylian Mbappé. He was 19 years old at the time when he scored the fourth winning goal. In March 2017, he became the youngest player in 62 years to start for France. In the summer of 2018, he was picked for the World Cup in Russia, and sported the blue number 10 shirt — previously worn by Zidane and Michel Platini — and the famous jersey number worn, for decades before he retired, by Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known as Pelé, the Brazilian former professional footballer forward, labelled “the greatest” by Fifa.

Mbappé alongside his teammate, Paul Pogba, lifted the trophy under the happy gazes of the crowd and the cheers of presidents Macron, Vladimir Putin and Kolinda GrabarKitarović of Croatia. It was a glorious time and so much to celebrate between the host nation, Russia, and the winning country, France. These were great memories of how the world came together to celebrate the geopolitics of sports for world peace. But that was then, a good old celebration.

In the run-up of this year’s World Cup in Qatar, from November 21 to December 18, the world will keep a close eye on whether France can repeat its win and keep the prized world title. The bad news is that Fifa has banned Russia from the 2022 World Cup.

This year’s event will take place in a tense global environment with the background of the Ukraine war. Russia is under the US-led sanctions as France’s president Macron leads the Council of Europe to confront Putin of Russia.

Again, how has the celebration of a great football victory in Russia faded so rapidly into a belligerent stand-off between France and Russia and what does it mean for Africa? The world has moved from the geopolitics of football to the geopolitics of belligerence.

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Well, clearly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has radically changed the world. Russia is now the global villain and a pariah to punish. And could Macron’s re-election in France make things worse for Russia and Putin?

Let’s remind ourselves that historical and modern relations between France and Russia have been rugged from the Napoleonic wars to the modern era with General De Gaulle, Mitterrand, Sarkozy to Hollande.

Today, things have gone sour between Macron and Putin. They are not on sound diplomatic terms and there are many reasons for it, mostly coming from Macron.

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First, Macron had renewed his accusations against Russian meddling in the past two French presidential elections in 2017 and this year and a direct attack on him during his electoral campaigns.

Second, as president of France and president of the Council of the European Union, Macron’s support for firm sanctions against the Russian invasion and the crisis it is creating in Europe.

Finally, Russia’s aggressive influence game is supposedly a French geopolitical backyard in West and Central Africa. On the other hand, Putin is concerned about the aggressive expansion of Nato to the borders of Russia, the EU and the West-led sanctions against Russia, recent EU paternalistic behaviours about Russia’s growing presence in Africa, and the constant denigration of Russia’s reputation as an autocratic and illiberal nation.

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But like the young Mbappé, can the re-elected Macron learn faster, better and play a bigger game on the world stage, make France and the EU global power players in a polylateral world and challenge Russia in Africa?

Differentiated welcome images of visits by Macron and Macky Sall of Senegal and the president of the AU, respectively sitting at long and short tables with Putin tell a powerful story of how Russia might deal with France and Africa in the future. Putin seemed to show more warmth for Africa.

France’s geopolitical challenges in Africa will more likely come from Russia and China as France’s record, legacy and behaviour in Africa creates a vacuum. As strategists say, “there is no vacuum in geopolitics. It must be filled”.

Therefore Russia, China and other leading regional powers are filling the glaring geopolitical gap that France creates in Africa. While the rest of the world steps into the 21st century, France hangs on to the 17th with Louis XIV style relationship with Africa.

Its relationship with its former colonies has not changed much and is out of step with its economic independence. Worse, its diplomatic cognitive dissonance continues to deepen the miseries of Africa. So, France must rethink its Africa policy and move from a healthy economic freedom and peacemaking approach rather than patronising and colonial warmongering.

Can France reassert and reclaim her seat at the World Cup of global geopolitics and especially in Africa? Here, comparing Mbappé to Macron and France to Russia is apt for global discourse on geopolitics in Africa.

The dynamics between presidents Macron and Putin are already shaping Africa – Mali, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Guinea and Mozambique among other nations. Geopolitics is like a high-level football game.

It is a global elite sport of sorts and the competition for the top spot comes at a high price. It can also be a brutal zero-sum game. Nevertheless, its rewards are great, and joyful and can be temporary because of the uncertainties of the global order. Macron had had a tough taste of the global race already. Can he do better during his second term?

As Western sanctions pressure, confront and isolate Russia, she will seek new territories to trade and strengthen diplomatic relations. And there is no better place to widen and play a powerful geopolitical game than Africa where Russia is already deploying an expanding influence strategy since the Sochi gathering with African leaders in 2019, and where the EU, Nato and the US feel threatened.

Africa could become Russia’s Lebensraum or vital space of survival as the Nazis considered Russia in the 1940s, for the next century. The war in Ukraine could slowly shift and be exported to Africa. There are already signs of a stand-off between France and Russia in west and central Africa and other parts of the continent.

They may escalate into confrontations if poorly managed, especially in Mali and the Central African Republic. Dmitri Trenin, a member of Russia’s Foreign and Defence Policy Council, asserts “Russia must reinvent itself to defeat the West’s ‘hybrid war’” because the “very existence of Russia is under threat. The country has to take serious measures to ensure it survives”. He also adds that “the Great Game has ceased to be a game.

It has become total war, though a hybrid one so far”. In short, such a hybrid war could also take place in armed conflicts in Africa. If so, Africans must be ready for such an overt French and Russian geopolitical clash. Will Africans take a side?

So, in addition to courting UN diplomatic votes and shoring up defence security deals, Russia could also strategically use or weaponise its main agricultural grain, fertilisers and other exports to seek and strengthen its relationship with Africa to the disadvantage of France. Can Macron be a world champion during his second term with his policy in Africa? Non, merci. I doubt it.

France, football and Russian geopolitical roulette are at play in Africa. This nexus is the big game to watch in the coming future of the continent. Now the question is: can Africans smartly play such a complex zero-sum game or a preferred win-win game?

* Kouakou is the Africa analyst and senior research fellow at The Centre of Africa-China at the University of Johannesburg