by Aly Jonas

France in Africa: why did Macron's policy fail?

La France en Afrique : pourquoi la politique de Macron a échoué ?

The French president has struggled to maintain the influence his country acquired in Africa through colonialism, without really succeeding.

French West Africa experienced five coups over the last three years. Most of these coups are based on hostility with regard to France, a former colonial authority. There fall of Mohamed Bazoum of Niger in July 2023 comes after the coups of Mali in August 2020, from Chad in April 2021, from Burkina Faso in September 2022 and Gabon in September 2023.

The authors of these coups d'état mentioned among their justifications the preponderant influence of France and its president, Emmanuel Macron, in their business. France's influence in military affairs and maintaining its dominant position in the business world have been key elements of Macron's agenda. Unlike other former colonial powers, France still has basics soldiers in Ivory Coast, Senegal and Gabon.

At the same time, Mr. Macron highlighted entrepreneurship as the best form of development aid. This strategic pivot away from personal relationships with African leaders is anchored in the neoliberal beliefs from Mr. Macron. It is a policy approach that favors market capitalism, deregulation and reduced public spending.

I am a historian who has does research on relations between France and its former colonies.

In Africa, Macron's neoliberal turn stripped France of the long-held myth that it was somehow a more benevolent colonizer because of the cultural ties it established with African elites. Macron's approach has only increased distrust and anger, as a significant military presence has not been replaced by a new international economic order, but by commercial agreements for small businesses and start-ups. This is not what Africans wanted, but this is what they got.

Neoliberal values ​​are French values

Rather than rebuilding the economic and financial infrastructure, Macron made entrepreneurship an aid to development: he encouraged the creation of businesses and the training of young Africans. The French Development Agency (the main French institution responsible for implementing policies) continues to invest in education, agriculture and infrastructure. But what Macron wants observers to notice is that, increasingly, French development aid in Africa must be managed by French companies.

French companies no longer earn money in secret, as at the time of Françafrique. At that time, French presidents supported African dictators to maintain their influence. Macron's speeches instead highlight commercial activities and neoliberal values ​​as French values ​​beneficial to the continent.

This recourse to French culture and values ​​can be seen as the continuation of a strategy that began with the French colonial project. Macron's values, however, are those of neoliberalism. Domestically, he adopted a retirement plan aimed at limiting the French state's debt. Abroad, he wants French development policy to be led by private initiatives.

In light of this strategy, it becomes clear that African sentiments have not become more anti-French. On the contrary, by elevating the economy to the central value of his relationship with Africa, Macron has played with a widely accepted African worldview, according to which underdevelopment is the product of dependence on Europe and neocolonial exploitation.

All visitors who chat with taxi drivers or salespeople in Dakar quickly understand that the French are seen as colonizers first, and then eventually as friends. What has changed is that Macron unwittingly confirmed Africans' suspicions about his intentions: he never wanted to change economic structures. Instead, Africans are given crumbs in the form of money for start-ups.

The free market as a dividing line in West Africa

Entrepreneurship is not unanimous on the continent. Belief in the market economy as an engine of development has redrawn the battle lines in West Africa. ECOWAS countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, which have experienced strong economic growth over the past decade, contrast with Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, which have experienced a worsening of poverty.

While other African countries like Kenya face similar debates over how to boost development – ​​the Kenyan president believes in his famous “hustler nation” – climate change and terrorism have driven to a more explosive cocktail in the Sahel.

The juntas which have come to power therefore do not present themselves only as temporary workers. They also claim to want to give a new ideological direction to their country.
Ibrahim Traore in Burkina Faso presented himself as the successor of Thomas Sankara, Assimi Goïta presented himself as a reformer and not a revolutionary.

In the past, the fires of African instability and anti-French sentiment have been fanned by the French's failure to fulfill their – sometimes cynical – promises of major structural changes. Today, it is the opposite that fuels instability. It is African leaders who are calling for big structural changes, but they are coming up against the efforts of small businesses to maintain French influence at lower cost. The Conversation

Frank Gerits, Research Fellow at the University of the Free State, South Africa and Assistant Professor in the History of International Relations, Utrecht University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license.