139. Macron’s Africa safari

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 9 June 2021
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: www.kremlin.ru. via commons.wikimedia.org

Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to Africa shows how France has continued a politque de grandeur in which a country in perpetual decline pretends to be a Great Power. As former French president, François Mitterrand, had noted in 1957: “Without Africa, France will no longer have a history in the twenty-first century.” France has therefore continued a neo-colonial relationship with the continent. Pax Gallica established military bases across Africa, and like a “pyromaniac fireman” intervened over 50 times to prop up or depose assorted tyrants. An unequal system of Françafrique saw 14 largely francophone African states tie their currencies to the French franc, and now the euro.

Folie de Grandeur

Macron has continued to promote these cosy and corrupt relationships. Despite rhetorical pretensions to be pursuing a new approach to Africa, he has continued to treat the continent as a chasse gardée (private hunting-ground). France has defended the Déby family autocracy in Chad. It has meddled in oil-rich Libya on the side of the warlord, General Khalifa Haftar. Macron theatrically announced the return of African artefacts to Senegal and Benin in December 2020, as if the return of stolen loot is a cause for celebration. His notorious and prejudiced description of Africa’s challenges as “civilizational” in July 2017, and the derogatory statement that African women having seven or eight children were “destabilising” the continent, echoed his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy’s racist speech in Dakar a decade earlier. Responding to criticisms in Ouagadougou in 2017 of the French role in Libya which spawned the slavery of black Africans, Macron insensitively noted that: “It’s not the French who are the traffickers, it’s the Africans.”

The French president has continued to suffer from Gaullist delusions of grandeur, arrogantly describing his leadership style as “Jupiterian”: a comparison to the most powerful Roman god. He recently invited 22 African leaders – including those of Nigeria and South Africa – to Paris to pay obeisance to the resident of Mount Olympus. This summit on Financing of African Economies sought to restructure Africa’s $417 billion external debt and gain $33 billion from International Monetary Fund (IMF) special drawing rights. But most of this cash will be provided by multilateral and larger donors, not France.

Macron in Africa

Macron visited Rwanda and South Africa in the last week. France had trained and armed the genocidal Hutu-led militias before the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which about 800,000 people were killed. Macron’s visit to Kigali thus resulted in him asking for forgiveness for France’s sordid role while stopping short of a full apology. Engaging in sophistry, the French leader noted that his country bore “serious and overwhelming responsibility” for the genocide, but then astonishingly argued that it had not been complicit in the massacres. The French intervention in Rwanda had, in fact, facilitated the génocidaires’ escape into eastern Congo.

In South Africa, Macron pushed for expanding production of COVID-19 drugs in Africa and lifting patents on existing medicines. However, despite his posturing on leading efforts on the pandemic, Macron was opposed to the waiving of patents until US president, Joe Biden, recently announced his support. France is thus following rather than leading. Macron’s blustering boastfulness in South Africa of wanting to vaccinate 40% of Africa’s population by December 2021, contrasts greatly with his own government’s badly bungled COVID response involving widespread shortages of masks, sanitizers, and protective equipment.

The Naked Emperor

Perhaps nothing better symbolises the continuing Gallic delusions of grandeur than its utterly failed counter-terrorism war in the Sahel. This may well turn out to be France’s Afghanistan. The armies of five client states – Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania – in the French-led G5 Sahel force have mostly been the cannon fodder sustaining hundreds of fatalities, while thousands of civilians have been brutally killed, and two million displaced. Instead of promoting democratic governance and development, France has militarised its engagement with the region.

Recent ghastly incidents involving its military for which France has refused to take proper responsibility, have also led to its growing unpopularity across Africa. In 2013, UN investigators released a report implicating French soldiers in the sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic (CAR). No charges were brought against these predators. Another UN report noted that a French airstrike in January 2021 killed at least 19 civilian members of a wedding party – along with three militants – in central Mali. A tone-deaf French military has continued to argue, against all evidence, that it struck only terrorists.

France’s support of autocratic and corrupt leaders like Chad’s murdered Idriss Déby – described by Macron at his funeral in May 2021 as a “loyal friend” – and Cameroon’s Paul Biya, has further discredited its role in Africa. Macron’s hectoring, omniscient style has not gone down well on the continent. He has recently spoken out of both sides of his mouth in condoning the coup d’état in Chad in April, and only a few weeks later, condemning the military putsch in Mali. Anti-French protests have taken place from N’djamena to Dakar to Abidjan to Ouagadougou, as the Gallic Emperor is increasingly revealed to be naked.

Stoking Islamophobia

Macron faces a tough re-election campaign next year against the fascist Marine Le Pen who once noted that French Muslims praying on the street was akin to the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War. The fact that such a vulgar and openly racist politician is polling at 47% in a potential second round run-off next year, is the clearest sign of France’s loss of a moral compass. This has led to Macron engaging in tawdry “dog-whistle politics.” Railing against Islamic “separatism,” he successfully pushed a law to gain more control over Muslim schools and mosques. Macron and his ministers, supported by legions of reactionary older white academics, have also vociferously stoked Islamophobia by branding what they dub “Islamo-leftism” – with echoes to the pre-Holocaust “Judeo-Bolshevism” – as a threat to French society and universities. These groups have further sought to demonise current efforts to explore the crimes of French slavery and colonialism. They have instead disingenuously called for a return to supposedly “universalist” French values which much of the world has refused to embrace.

Graveyard of the French Gendarme

Despite Macron’s grandstanding as a global leader, France has not been in the front ranks of global power for eight decades. Its seat on the UN Security Council is anachronistic. It is the seventh largest economy in the world, behind India and likely to be overtaken soon by Brazil. It still wields influence within the European Union, but it is clear that Germany is the continental paymaster and leader. France’s national debt at $3 trillion – a staggering 115.7% of its GDP – is also one of the highest in the world. The country has consistently failed to contribute 0.7% of its GDP to foreign aid. Paris actually can not afford its politique de grandeur and has sought to get the UN and the EU to stomp up the cash to subsidize its African adventures. This is, however, not a sustainable strategy. The Sahel may well represent the graveyard of the French gendarme in Africa.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.