Macron and the End of the Françafrique

Macron and the End of the Françafrique

04/2021  | Reading time: 12 minutes

French President Emmanuel Macron has introduced several new ideas into the traditional foreign policy mindset of the Fifth Republic. One of them is that he is increasingly trying to change the focus of the French diplomatic agenda by turning it more towards the African continent. Obviously, this shift is not without precedents, as the linguistic, cultural, economic, and security links between France and Africa has been particularly strong since the colonial era. The novelty of Macron’s attempt lies in the fact that he tries to release France from the historic burden of its colonial past. Within this new framework, a reconciliation process with Algeria started this year, with the clear objective to unearth the hidden secrets related to the Algerian War of Independence. Following the Duclert report, France–Rwanda relations came to a détente too. But will the president be able to end the Françafrique and create a new base for French influence in Africa?

We can claim—perhaps without exaggeration—that after the period of decolonisation Emmanuel Macron is the first French president who took real steps to confront his country with its colonial heritage. To this end, he established several research groups whose mission is to provide scholarship and to evaluate this period of French history. In his rhetoric, moreover, Macron often stresses Africa’s key position not only in French foreign policy making but also in the European common foreign policy. It seems likely that there is a geostrategic motivation behind his act of friendship. Nonetheless, while pursuing his goals, Macron has to face anti-French sentiments prevailing in many African societies—if not in the whole of the continent—fuelled on the one hand by collective colonial memory, and on the other hand by the refusal of neo-colonial policies, that is to say, the re-colonisation of the continent through economic means.

Africa was the focal point of the French colonial empire
Source: Sidhe/Shutterstock

The term Françafrique was introduced in 1955 by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, first president of the Republic of Ivory Coast, to describe the community of French-speaking African nations that continued to maintain a special relationship with Paris after decolonisation. In its current meaning, however, the expression is almost synonymous with the term neo-colonisation, as over the fifty years since their independence France has been keeping its former African colonies in its zone of influence through economic, commercial, and cultural means. In spite of the fact that President Macron claims to put an end to economic exploitation in Africa, trade relations between France and its African partners continue to be unequal.

French has been one of the most important and influential languages in history. Today, it is the fifth most widely spoken language on Earth with a total number of three hundred million speakers as of 2018. Recognising that the widespread use of the French language can be a valuable diplomatic asset, and based on the example of the British Commonwealth, in 1970, France also created an alliance for the nations and regions maintaining strong ties to it. On the institutional level, it is the International Organisation of the Francophonie (Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie) that coordinates the political, educational, economic and cultural cooperation of the fifty-four member states and governments from five continents, while also linking the associate and observer members to the organisation. The revised charter of the organisation was adopted in 1997, which—among others—stipulated that the secretary-general would be the main representative of the organisation. This post was first filled by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and is currently being occupied by Louise Mushikiwabo, former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Rwanda. With regard to the mission of Francophonie, the propagation of the French language (particularly in education and research), the preservation of cultural and linguistic diversity, the promotion of peace, democracy and human rights, and the encouragement of sustainable economic development are among the main objectives of the organisation.

On March 20, the International day of Francophonie celebrates the French language and the diversity of Francophone cultures and values.
Source: MURGROUP/Shutterstock

While the promotion of the French language is a priority on the French diplomatic agenda, its use in Africa is burdened by traumatic historic experiences. Despite reservations, French as an official language has succeeded to link and bind the population of countries where the coexistence of more than ten languages within the artificially created borders would otherwise lead to difficulties. By promoting the French language, Paris is actively contributing to the establishment of school networks in Africa to increase the access of the local population to quality education, while also respecting and protecting local languages. Moreover, France is also participating in teacher training programmes all over Francophone Africa with the aim to broaden its sphere of influence. The 21st century is, however, not the first time, when France uses its language to support its geopolitical agenda. Apart from the fact that the creation of the central state was a result of language propagation, the logic of linguistic colonisation was also used in the creation of the French Colonial Empire.

Since 2017, the Élysée Palace took numerous steps to create cordial relations with Africa and to facilitate historical reconciliation. As a result, France and its former colonies mutually opened towards each other. In the meantime, the research projects commissioned by President Macron seem to yield some results too. As a result, Paris is now able to normalise its relationship with Kigali after a long, icy break in Franco–Rwandan relations following the 1994 genocide. The Duclert Commission, appointed by Emmanuel Macron, even managed to shed some light on the role of France in the escalation of the events by revealing how Paris supported the Hutu government prior to the genocide. The Duclert report was handed over to the president on 26 March 2021 and received great public attention thereafter. Even if there are still many unknown facts, for the very first time, the concept of accountability appears to be emerging in Franco–African relations.

Like in the case of Rwanda, a reconciliation process has started in Franco–Algerian relations as well, in the frame of which the events of the Algerian War of Independence are being examined. The research on the Algerian War is led by historian Benjamin Stora, who published his report at the beginning of 2021. As a presidential gesture towards Algeria, Emmanuel Macron furthermore announced the facilitation of access to files reporting on the events during the War of Independence. All this happened barely a week after France admitted the torture and murder of Ali Boumendjel, a lawyer and prominent independence activist who disappeared in 1957. However, just like in Rwanda’s case there are geopolitical motives behind the approximation initiated by Paris, namely the fear of losing influence in Algeria but possibly the entire Middle-East and North Africa (MENA). Algeria thus occupies a central position in President Macron’s post–colonial reconciliation campaign. Therefore, it is no coincidence that his famous and slightly scandalous remark—stating that colonisation is a crime against humanity—was said there on his tour prior to the 2017 presidential elections.

Memory of the Algerian War of Independence is still preventing the normalisation of Algeria–France relations
Source: Leo Altman/Shutterstock

The current French government is especially keen on maintaining a zone of influence in Africa. As a result, they pledged to coordinate vaccine distribution in Africa amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems thus that France is trying to use this current health and economic crisis to appear as a true leader of the Francophonie. In addition, Paris also prompted its fellow developed partners to assume responsibility in facilitating access to vaccines for developing countries struggling with limited resources and lack of infrastructure. On the occasion of the G7 summit, President Macron even suggested that developed countries should relinquish from three to five percent of the doses they possess for the benefit of the developing countries. He furthermore underlined that this solidarity is not only in France’s interest but also in the whole of Europe’s. While discussing the expected consequences of the pandemic, the French politician expressed his concern that the pandemic will deepen global inequalities, and emphasised that if Europe is not ready to share its vaccine stock with Africa, then Russia or China will do it, which, in the long run, would also impact the geopolitical landscape of the continent.

In addition to the rhetoric, the Francophonie, the former Françafrique also has an influence on the French development aid policy and distribution, as French-speaking recipient countries benefit from relatively more assistance, than the non-Francophone ones. In 2019, France spent 0.44 percent of its GDP on development aid, which is less than the 0.7 percent recommendation of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on development assistance, but it is enough for the country to remain at the forefront. Morocco benefited from the biggest share of French aid, followed by Ivory Coast and Cameroon. In 2019, six out of the ten largest recipients were former French colonies. If we examine French official development assistance on the regional level, Sub-Saharan Africa receives by far the most, an amount of 2769 million US dollars, followed by the MENA region, then Latin America and the Caribbean, where many of the former French colonies are located.

Africa is thus a focal point in President Macron’s foreign policy agenda. In this context, the president even commenced a series of Africa–France Summits, and  France will host one of them this year in Montpellier. The main objective of the French government is to bring the two continents closer together in addition to the already existing institutionalised cooperation. The motto of the French Africa policy reads therefore as follows: if Africa does not succeed, Europe cannot be successful either.

Besides shared cultural heritage, relations between the Fifth Republic and Africa are also based on a French desire to maintain the existing economic dependencies. One of the most visible consequences of the Françafrique is the CFA franc zone that ensured continued monetary dependence of the participating African countries on France. This currency is widely used in the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (Chad, Cameroon, Republic of Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon) and in the West African Economic and Monetary Union (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Bissau-Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo). While originally the CFA franc’s exchange rate was tied to the French franc, today it has a fixed exchange rate to the euro which also means that the direct dependence on France has been eased but did not disappear.


The CFA franc currency system is still in force in several countries.
Source: Wikipedia

This relationship also involves security elements. For Paris, the priority challenge is to prevent further destabilisation in the Sahel Belt. Currently, there are more than five thousand French troops deployed in the region as part of Operation Barkhane tasked with the mission to stop the activity of radical Islamist groups. The so-called G5 Sahel is a regularly organised summit for political leaders from France and countries in the region to jointly find solutions to the various issues challenging them, such as terrorism and poverty, and to avoid humanitarian crisis as a consequence of these problems. Besides President Macron, this years’ summit in N’Djamena, Chad was attended by the presidents of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

In spite of the fact that ever since his election in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron, in rhetoric terms, emphasises the equal partnership between France and Africa and is trying to leave the memory of the Françafrique behind, in reality, and for economic reasons, France still pursues a policy towards its African partners that maintains neo-colonial conditions. Hence, gestures towards some former colonies might not be enough for a real partnership to be formed based on cultural, economic, and security relations.


The opening pic is by: 000peter, from Wikimedia Commons, and licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0

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