The Elysee Palace, the secretariat of the French president, is on the move in Africa as policies that lasted a lifetime – including a controversial Francophone currency union – are being ripped up. Senior policymakers recognise an urgent need for a shake-up in the country’s foreign policy that maintains a direct role in the continent’s affairs. This urgent overhaul applies to regions where Paris had a historical role, as well as to those where it did not.
French diplomats see the disintegration of the post-Second World War rules-based internationalism as a cycle – not a fad – and this view has triggered a new scramble for Africa. Not only is control over mineral resources key to the new world order, Africa also has a demographic advantage over nearly every other region in the world. Furthermore, decades of development-spending in several countries means that the continent as a whole has also begun closing the education gap.
Seeking a symbolic turning point during his visit to Ivory Coast earlier this month, President Emmanuel Macron issued a full apology to its people for France’s colonial history. This was accompanied by the announcement of a revamp of the ‘CFA franc’ currency union, a move that received praise from the International Monetary Fund. Yet there are reasons to see this reform as part of the reset, not a repudiation
Seeking a symbolic turning point during his visit to Ivory Coast earlier this month, President Emmanuel Macron therefore issued a full apology to its people for France’s colonial history. This was accompanied by the announcement of a revamp of the “CFA franc” currency union, a move that received praise from the International Monetary Fund. Known as “Colonies Francaises d’Afrique” – or French colonies in Africa – the CFA franc was established in 1945. But it has ever since been perceived as a controversial currency due to its control by France.
Yet there are reasons to see this reform as part of the reset, not a repudiation. After all, the new currency is named “Eco”, which sounds suspiciously akin to the “Ecu”, the forerunner of the Euro. The steps towards monetary integration in Europe are indeed a model for the west African states – and, evidently, a new iteration of French sway is moulding the future.
Mr Macron’s announcement cannot alter the fact that west Africa, where the CFA was the currency in eight nations, is the fulcrum of French commitment to Africa. What he wants is to see this region as a base for French involvement across the continent.
The recent history of French military deployment to prevent the overrun and capture of the Malian state by Islamist extremists has demanded changes in the traditional French approach. Tackling the big issues of terrorism, extremism, climate change and migration has become as important as preserving ties to it former colonies.
France has been frustrated by the failure of European nations to join it in confronting the aforementioned issues faced by the Sahel, a region that stretches across northern Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea.
The presidents of states such as Chad and Niger also complain bitterly about the lack of support to shore up their struggling governments. Regular terror attacks plague states such as Burkina Faso, which has little history of communal violence. Earlier this year, the United Nations warned that 1.9 million children in the region were being denied education and that 9,000 schools were forced to close during the past 12 months.
France remains a conduit and an ally as they make these pleas. Mr Macron is aware that these countries have nowhere else to turn. The Sahel continues to face encroachment by violent groups that test the durability of the French-led force that seeks to bring stability to the region. Without France, it would have been engulfed long ago.
For many in the area, it sends a terrible signal that other nations have not committed in the same way as France.
Just last week, the US performed an abrupt U-turn when its department of defence said that it hoped to announce the drawdown and eventual closure of its largest military facility in west Africa. It would also end support for the French Sahel mission, known as Operation Barkhane. The move was painted as a geo-strategic choice as the country focuses on the challenges it faces from China and Russia.
France has no such choice to make and during his Africa trip this month, Mr Macron vowed to double down on his commitment to fighting extremism.
Paris has also eyed the role of referee in the conflict under way in Libya. On the northern coast of Africa lies perhaps the most immediate challenge for France and Europe on the whole. Last week, Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias sought French alignment and support as his country – as well as other Mediterranean countries – are unnerved by Turkey’s growing support for the authorities in Tripoli. This means that the opening months of 2020 are set to be dominated by efforts from the French and others to ensure that Turkey does not run a satellite state in the north African state while having a chokehold on cross-Mediterranean migration.
The US might have an aversion to building long-term strategic relations in Africa but other states are growing their involvement, notably Russia and China. Next month, the British government is expected launch its own policy regarding the continent at an African investment conference in London. Britain wants to position itself as an enabler of Africa’s economic development and is calling leaders from as far afield as Japan and South America to participate in the forum for raising opportunities for growth in the continent.
Meanwhile, the issue of conflict-resolution continues in central and east Africa. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, hosted Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean president, ahead of the latter’s latest visit to Ethiopia as he looks to further the peace initiative between the two countries. Pope Francis devoted a part of his Christmas address to hopes for a new chapter for peace in Sudan and South Sudan.
With protests raging across France over Mr Macron’s pension reforms, there is little doubt that the president is facing plenty of domestic challenges. By contrast, however, his international policies – particularly involving Africa – have been remarkably clear-eyed.
Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National