France-Africa relations challenged by China and the European Union

Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron as he hosts the leaders of the G5 Sahel countries - Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, as well as Germany, Italy and and Saudi Arabia to discuss how to speed up the implementation of the G5 West African counter-terrorism force in La Celle Saint Cloud, near Paris, France, December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer - RC1CD5FF5400

On January 23, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini derided France’s “apathy” toward stabilizing Libya, claiming, “probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.” Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio supported this position two days later by claiming that French economic policies prevented African states’ development and contribute to increased migration from the continent. This rhetoric is nothing new and reflects the complex status of present-day European influence in Africa. Africa is the European Union’s third-largest two-way trading partner—after the United States and China—with a trade surplus for the EU of 18 billion euros in 2017. Germany currently leads the EU in exports to Africa (8.3 billion euros), and France ranks second (5.6 billion euros). As the effects of migration and resource scarcity ripple across both continents, European and African leaders are now coming to terms with needed economic, political, and security reforms.

Here are four things you need to know about France-Africa relations given the evolving context with the European Union, China, and other emerging partners.

1. Economic relations: Losing ground but trying to revive

Economic relations between France and African countries are defined by a variety of trajectories experienced and, since the 2000s, a tentative shift away from France with the diversification of partnerships, which I examine in my book “Innovating Development Strategies in Africa: The Role of National, Regional, and International Actors.” Though French companies like Total, Areva, and Bolloré have been household names in Africa for decades and contributed to energy development and infrastructure growth, they have received criticism from local nongovernmental organizations for reported corporate governance and social responsibility issues, corruption scandals, and monopolistic behavior. Though French companies are winning new infrastructure bids, such as the French firm Eiffage in Togo that signed a $35-million construction contract for a container terminal in 2014, China has become an easier business partner for many African countries.

For example, Chinese loans to Côte d’Ivoire increased from zero in 2000 to $2.5 billion between 2010 and 2015. China also has contracts to build sports facilities, develop a port, and construct a highway from Abidjan to Grand Bassam. As China’s market share in Africa grows, European countries’ economic relations may diminish, potentially increasing political and diplomatic tensions between Europe and African countries. African countries may instead favor emerging partners such as India, Brazil, Turkey, and Middle Eastern countries. China and the United Arab Emirates are already ranked first and second, respectively, in levels of investment. Chinese investment reached $38.4 billion in 2016, compared to France’s sixth-place $7.7 billion in investment throughout Africa in 2016. France’s trade with Africa has remained heavily focused on commodities, with over 80 percent of France’s $8.5 billion of imports in 2016 coming from sub-Saharan African countries. Given the future implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area, the economic partnership agreements negotiated between the European Union and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific groups of countries may have to be revisited.

2. Military cooperation that both supports and undermines economic relations

Among European countries, France has the highest levels of military engagement with Africa. After independence, France signed defense agreements with countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, Djibouti, Gabon, Senegal, Cameroon, and Comoros. Many of these agreements have been revised or deconstructed, but France still has numerous military bases located from western Senegal to the Horn of Africa. France recently reinforced its ground troops in the Central African Republic, stationed there since 2008 as part of an operation to stabilize the country and train local soldiers. France has also been active in Chad since 1986, and this base is key to current Sahel operations against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Dine.

France deployed 3,000 troops in 2014 as part of Operation Barkhane in the Sahel. This operation and other French military engagements in Africa may reflect defense agreements, but often leave African citizens vulnerable to French security, economic, and political interests. After numerous interventions resulting in negative outcomes, including in the Rwandan genocide and in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya more recently, some Africa citizens have “Francophobia” and accuse France of neocolonialism. Rwandan officials still accuse France of complicity in the 1994 genocide and in 2008 switched from French to English in schools in an effort to move away from Francophone influence. The 2018 appointment of Rwanda’s Louise Mushikiwabo as new Secretary-General of the International Organization of the Francophonie may “warm up” those tumultuous relations.

3. Influence and soft power are cornerstones of relations

France’s continuing relations with former colonies in West and Central Africa represent the term “La Françafrique,” the positive and negative effects of French influence in the post-independence period. The continued use of the French language is one advantage used to maintain relations; there are more than 100 million French speakers in Africa, representing almost half the number of French speakers in the world. The CFA franc, though recently contested for severely limiting the monetary independence of African countries and impacting their economic development, is another. Finally, many French citizens can trace their heritage back to Africa and, as of 2008, 2.3 million immigrants in France were from an African country. For example, at least 14 players on the 2018 FIFA World Cup winning French team were of African descent. France remains an attractive destination for African talents—especially Francophone Africans—despite integration challenges.

In 2013, the French Senate published a report, entitled Africa is our Future (L’Afrique est notre avenir), highlighting 10 priorities and 70 measures to improve French-African relations. And since his election in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has placed Africa at the cornerstone of France’s foreign relations policy. Macron has stated a desire to partner with, not dominate, African states. The French government recently outlined proposals for restituting African art and cultural objects to their original homes on the African continent; this effort is undoubtedly part of a long-term agenda to remedy historical grievances and become equitable partners. The efforts will be credible as long as Macron (and other French policymakers) will stay away from controversial statements such as describing the problems Africa faces as “civilizational” ones.

4. Development aid and diplomatic commitments

France, hoping to boost its trade volume with Africa, plans to increase its aid to the continent to 20 billion euros in 2019. The top five recipients of French official development assistance in 2016 were Morocco, Jordan, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Egypt. In Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, during November 2017, President Macron outlined France’s diplomatic and financial commitments to build relations with Africa. These commitments include education and academic cooperation, innovation and economic partnerships, climate and sustainable cities initiatives, and cultural exchange.

The French government has also recently allocated more resources to development aid since the migration crisis began making global headlines and straining French-African relations. This aid has mostly been focused on counterterrorism. The EU and France recently announced a total of $1.5 billion to fight violent extremists in the Sahel. French aid is better received on the continent than the French economic and military presence.

France-Africa relations—caught between the past and present—have been further complicated by the political and strategic involvement of the European Union and some of its members, as illustrated by the statements from Italian leaders. With African leaders increasingly focusing on continent-wide trade negotiations, conflicting interests between EU member states on economic policy and migration must be resolved before equitable partnerships with Africa can be fully realized. African countries must be also proactive in elaborating more explicit, straightforward, individual, and collective strategies to advance relations with France, the European Union, and other partners such as the U.S. and China. The continued pursuit of productive partnerships is the best way to build mutually beneficial relations, which I highlight in my recently published book “African Development, African Transformation: How Institutions Shape Development Strategy.”