France: Out of Africa and back?

Despite change in rhetoric, France continues to employ familiar foreign policies toward its former colonies in Africa.

France has participated in two military interventions in Africa in the span of a year [AP]

When Francois Hollande took over power, he was swift in implementing the decision taken under the Sarkozy administration to dismantle the cellule Africaine de l’Elysee (Africa Cell). This special unit of presidential advisors, who were responsible for safeguarding French interests in Africa, embodied the Francafrique par excellence. One cannot be naive to believe that these so-called advisors have nicely accepted a retirement plan. However, the end of the Africa Cell was meant to signal that France intends to break away from its past with Africa.

The recent France-Africa Summit, which was held in Paris on December 6 and 7, took things to the next level. Unlike other summits that bring together European and African leaders, the summit was focused on no more than three areas of cooperation. The agreements were clear and measurable. The Final Declaration spared us the rhetoric of “friendship” and “strong historical ties” that bind “us” together, forever. But does the talk mean that the Francafrique is over and that a new era of relations between Africa and France has started?

The tone of the France-Africa summit demonstrated a willingness to be more open about France’s interests in Africa. France admits to wanting to capitalise on its traditional political influence, if needed, to regain the lost ground. However, its recent approach to dealing with African countries demonstrates that it will be difficult for the country to leave behind its old Francafrique ways.

Promise of a pragmatic foreign policy

Francois Hollande did not shy away from calling for a reform of the French foreign policy. Throughout his campaign, and in the months that followed his election as a new president, Hollande repeatedly noted that the world of today does not necessarily favour the prestigious position France used to hold. He recognised the changing global order, which would require a change in the global governance systems. He sees international institutions such as the UN Security Council as a legacy of the past that is yet to adjust to the realities of the new world, notably by incorporating the emerging economies.

The French African Connection

But it is on the reform of French-African relations that expectations were high. Speaking at the Conference of Ambassadors [Fr] held just three months after his election, Hollande insisted that his foreign policy symbolises a new dawn in France-Africa relations. Not surprisingly, the Maghreb is to remain a cornerstone of French foreign policy towards Africa. But Hollande’s three state visits to the region, respectively to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, were more of the same old. They were meant to sustain French investment in the region especially after the Arab Spring and bring political backing to governments, notably to Tunisia’s, where political assassinations were carried out this year.

What was new in the French approach to the Maghreb, however, was that it seems to consider the region as an ally to address issues of interest to French diplomacy, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although Hollande’s visit to Algeria in December 2012 was presented to the public as a visit to reaffirm the “friendship” between the two countries, its purpose, as it would later emerge, was mainly to convince Algeria to back a French intervention in Mali. The order of the day was that of attempting to convince partners and to gather support, to avoid being seen as acting unilaterally. In the end France did gain support before intervening in Mali.   

Regaining economic advantage

South of the Maghreb, the story is different. The foreign policy of Hollande seems to focus on regaining space politically, but the emphasis is mainly placed on economic relations. And rightly so! Over the last 10 years, France’s share of African trade plummeted from 10 percent to 4.7 percent [Fr]. France is not the only country that lost ground. In fact the Western countries’ share of African trade and investment has declined as a result of the increased engagements of emerging countries notably Malaysia and China. Hollande seems resolved to regain such space and put a bold commitment forward to double trade with Africa in the next five years.

The French have also tried to enter into dialogue with Africa’s eastern partners such as China in an attempt to recognise the role of these actors on the continent and to benefit from the access they have, notably in economic terms.

African growth is seen as a potential engine for the stagnating French economy. By ambitioning to double trade flows between France and Africa, Hollande has in mind the 200,000 jobs that could potentially be created in unemployment-stricken France. An important commitment of his socialist government would therefore be fulfilled.

Hence, policies towards Africa can be seen as an extension of the French government’s domestic policy. In 2013, Hollande became known as Mr Colocalisation [Fr]. This idea, which he presented for the first time during his visit to Morocco and which was first applied in Eastern Europe, involves a partnership whereby parts of the production cycle is delocalised out of France. But to counter criticism that delocalisation results in the loss of much-needed jobs in France, colocalisation ensures that parts of the production remain in France. The products remain “made in France” and the arrangement is expected to be a win-win for both countries involved: job creation in the host country and a reduction of costs for the French company, allowing it to gain access to the partner country’s market and to increase its investment envelops which are expected to benefit the French economy as a whole.  

Security needed

The deployment of French troops in oil-rich CAR, alongside the 6,000 troops of the African Union, has again raised questions on the commercial motives of France.

But economic interests need to be secure. It is no secret that the French intervention in Mali was, at least partially, linked to its interests in neighbouring Niger, France’s main source of uranium.

In Africa, France’s presence in its former colonies has often been perceived as an illustration of the Francafrique and is therefore historically controversial. For many decision makers, the French intervention in Mali was driven by self-interest at the cost of local interests. The mission, which was reportedly welcomed with open arms by the populations of Northern Mali, came to clash with broader regional interests. France was fighting against terrorism in the Northern region while African actors, including the African Union, the regional grouping ECOWAS and some elements within the Malian government were rather insisting on the need to maintain the territorial integrity of the country as a whole.

The tension increased as support for the African mission, AFISMA, was compromised in the UN Security Council whose members were seen to favour a UN peacekeeping mission with narrower objectives than the African mission.This promoted some officials in the Malian government to raise the question “what kind of peace should be maintained and between which parties”.

Hollande also faced harsh domestic criticism in early December when it was announced that he approved the deployment of French soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR). The public opinion questioned what the financial implications were considering that the country is tightening its belt domestically.

The deployment of French troops in oil-rich CAR, alongside the 6,000 troops of the African Union, has again raised questions on the commercial motives of France. The mission, which will be stationed indefinitely, will put to test even further the Africa policy of Hollande.

The announced French support to the operationalisation of the African Standby Force (ASF) could be a win-win for both Africa and France, and can respond to the needs expressed by the African Union, which has been calling international partners to provide it with support to strengthen its ability to rapidly respond to crises. France,however, might need to do more to convince Africans that its interventions in Africa, two in the space of one year, are not about keeping Francafrique alive.

Faten Aggad-Clerx is an Africa analyst covering African development issues. She is currently the Program Manager for Africa at the European Centre for Development Policy Management. She writes in her personal capacity.