Ouagadougou – When Emmanuel Macron condemned France’s colonial past during the presidential campaign, many people took it as a sign that if elected he would build a new relationship with Africa, one that would end 60 years of France exerting its influence over its former colonies to favour its interests.
Macron heads to Africa as France’s youngest president and he is promising change. His message is that the days of Paris’ paternalistic approach to Africa, known as Francafrique, are over.
Macron is not the first French leader to claim he will finally break with the past, but this president hopes that his own political story may help convince people that he means what he says.
Macron’s rise to power in France was as impressive as it was swift. In less than two years he has transformed France’s political landscape, broken the dominance of traditional parties and filled parliament with his MPs, half of whom come from civil society. All this has appealed to French voters who were fed up with mainstream politicians.
In Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, Macron hopes to seduce another audience, those disillusioned not by politics but by France.
The Elysee Palace says France’s leader is aware that the task will not be easy. Burkina Faso won independence from France in 1960, but the ties have never been completely severed.
Many Burkinabe’s remain angry that France helped former President Blaise Compaore flee the country in 2014. He was forced out after street protests against 27 years of increasingly authoritarian rule. Ouagadougou has also called on France to extradite Compaore’s brother who is wanted in connection with the killing of a journalist in 1998.
Winning back goodwill towards France is also about long-term planning in a continent where China has upped the competition.
Macron’s trip is centred on the theme of youth, in the past, he has called Africa the continent of the future. It is why, says the Elysee, he will focus on innovation, jobs and sport rather than development aid.
He will make a speech to students at a university, visit schools and tour West Africa’s largest solar power park to mark his commitment to preserving the planet for future generations.
Youth is also the theme for this week’s European Union and African Union summit in Abidjan which Macron will attend.
It is an anodyne theme, but it was probably chosen not to ruffle feathers. No self-respecting leader could disagree over the importance of assuring young people the best future possible. But it is taken on a sinister twist as the world absorbs shocking images of young Africans being traded as slaves in Libya.
It is mainly the young who migrate in Africa, some within their region to neighbouring countries; others try to reach Europe, taking perilous journeys that many don’t survive. They flee conflict, drought, famine, violence, poverty, sometimes a combination of all in search of a better life.
Macron arrives at the summit at a time when anger is growing over Europe’s role in Libya. Last week in Brussels the Malian president blamed NATO’s 2011 bombing campaign for sowing chaos in Libya.
The EU has poured money into Libya to tighten its borders, but activists say that has created a bottleneck of vulnerable migrants.
Macron has called on the UN Security Council to take action against what he calls the “crimes against humanity” being committed in Libya.
Like other European leaders, though, he wants to see illegal immigration stopped. He has supported deals with some African countries which offer them more EU development aid in return for tightening their borders.
He once suggested setting up French immigration processing centres on African soil before critics pointed out France was no longer a colonial power.
There have been other gaffes. He was accused of a neo-colonial attitude when he said Africa’s problem was that women were having too many babies.
Macron will hope that by the time he reaches his last stop, Ghana, his trip will have changed some minds about French intentions in Africa.
In many ways, Ghana is perhaps the best indication that Macron wants to do things differently. It is neither a former French colony nor is it francophone, it is a dynamic, innovative democracy.
Macron is visiting Accra because of what it symbolises for the future rather than for its past.