What is the point of France-Africa summits? This provocative question was raised by Thomas Sankara during the Vittel Summit in October 1983. Speaking to a defensive French press, the Burkina Faso head of state and revolutionary leader admitted that he had no satisfactory answer; it was obvious, to him at least, that this type of meeting with the old colonial power was hardly the most appropriate forum for discussing Africa’s own problems.
Despite Sankara’s criticism, French-speaking heads of state — gradually joined by their counterparts from the rest of the African continent — continued to perform this ritual. The meetup was recently renamed the “Africa-France” summit, no doubt to dispel the generally unflattering perceptions associated with “Françafrique,” a term used to refer to Paris’s problematic relations with its former colonial territories.
For this year’s Africa-France summit in Montpellier, France, the former colonizer also has a further innovation: the absence of African heads of states and the introduction of “civil society,” including prominent African personalities whom French president Emmanuel Macron has chosen as his interlocutors. But far from a break with Paris talking down to Africa, the emergence of this neoimperial “civil society” should be understood as a last-ditch attempt to shore up France’s increasingly challenged hegemonic ambitions.
Losing Control, Rising Anxiety
The idea that France’s future and its geopolitical status are bound to the preservation of a special and asymmetrical relationship with its former empire has long been — continues to be — the backdrop of Paris’s policy toward postcolonial Africa. But despite the continent’s strategic importance, France has never had a foreign policy worthy of the name in French-speaking Africa. This is because it has never needed one: Instead, it has managed to maintain a form of neocolonial control.
In lieu of a traditional foreign policy, France has long used orders and injunctions in its dealings with its former empire. This began with the Brazzaville Conference in 1944, which was held without the presence of Africans even though it was supposed to discuss the future of so-called French Africa. Ever since, for French-speaking Africa, France has remained the location of choice for discussions on democracy (La Baule, June 1990), security issues (Pau Summit, January 2020), development financing (Paris Summit on Financing African economies, May 2021), and more. In addition, nearly all United Nations (UN) resolutions on Francophone Africa have been either influenced or sponsored by France.
These asymmetric relationships are increasingly unacceptable to the people of Africa, as demonstrated by the attacks on French economic interests during the popular uprising in Senegal in March 2021 and the popular protests against the French military presence in Mali. Apart from what French officials and the mainstream media misleadingly refer to as “anti-French sentiment,” Paris is facing economic competition from China in its African “backyard,” as well as military and diplomatic rivalry from other powers such as Russia (notably in the Central African Republic) and Turkey. On the French side, these circumstances have given rise to a sense of losing control — and a certain anxiety about the continent’s future.
Traditional mechanisms for maintaining imperial hegemony have reached their limits. Military interventions, such as the failed Operation Barkhane in Mali, are costly, inconclusive, and increasingly unpopular in Africa. The announced “withdrawal” of the Barkhane force from Mali — in reality, a reorganization of the intervention — should be understood in this context. Similarly, there is a widening gap between the ruling minority supported by Paris and the aspirations of Africa’s peoples themselves. Alliances with loyal heads of state, as illustrated by the sham “reform” of the CFA franc currency area — announced in December 2019 by Ivory Coast president Alassane Ouattara alongside his French counterpart — are fueling a growing mistrust and suspicion of France. Finally, these leaders generally have no hesitation opening their economies to rival powers when these latter are willing to grant the desired financing.
Thus, the current French executive’s improvisations — and in particular the expansion of its circle of alliances to include “civil society” — should be seen in the light of both the new challenges facing France on the African continent and the inadequacy of its traditional methods of intervention.
Macron, Architect of the “Restart”
To say that the current French government’s African policy clings to its gilded past is simply a truism. As an example, one may look no further than the dynastic military succession Macron endorsed with the recent coup d’état in Chad. But Macron’s Africa policy does have a distinctive cachet that the Institut Montaigne, a right-leaning think tank, described in a September 2017 report as the “restart.”
In formal and rhetorical terms, for Paris the “restart” consists of abandoning its inhibitions and adopting a discourse that “breaks taboos,” paired with a “transparent” strategy. The desire to improve France’s image in Africa lies at the root of certain recent “symbolic” steps: plans to hand back certain looted cultural artifacts, the implied recognition of France’s responsibility during the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, and the “facilitation” of the opening of colonial archives in Algeria and those pertaining to the assassination of Thomas Sankara.
In terms of its real content, the “restart” is banking on an “Afro-realism” spearheaded by French entrepreneurs and start-ups: “[The] ‘restart’ discourse should promote French companies’ access to African markets,” insists the Institut Montaigne. Alongside traditional political support, economic influence is gaining renewed importance. This is undoubtedly one of the motivations behind the 2017 establishment of the French Presidential Council for Africa, an advisory body made up of prominent figures coming mostly from the business world.
Influence via “the market” has the advantage of creating a community of interests between France and its European partners, who are also keen to compete with China, Russia, Turkey, and sometimes the United States. In return for concessions on more open economic access to the French-speaking world, France advocates joint military arrangements, as embodied by European defense cooperation.
But this diplomacy also pushes Macron’s economic objectives. It is aligned with the “Wall Street Consensus,” a concept referring to the new development agenda set by international financial institutions, multilateral development banks, development agencies, and financial asset-management companies. The goal is to maximize private financing in the Global South by hedging against various risks (political risks, demand risks, and currency risks).
This philosophy of “development as derisking“ underpins Macron’s “New Deal” for Africa. This not only entails the privatization of public services, through instruments such as public-private partnerships (PPPs), but also turns states into benevolent insurers of the profits of international investors. In the twelve-page final declaration of the recent Paris Summit on Financing African Economies, the word “risk” appears a whopping nineteen times. The increased resonance of this type of neoliberal approach on the continent is made possible by the functionalist, depoliticized, and technocratic approach of economic decision-making circles and institutions such as the African Union (AU).
The Role of a Neoimperial “Civil Society”
This week’s Africa-France summit in Montpellier will formally enshrine an alliance between the Macron regime and an African “civil society” tailored to give the illusion that it is responsive to African publics and the continent’s intellectuals. Given the illegitimacy of the political leaders of French-speaking Africa, who are traditional allies of France, it must have seemed wise to set up a neoimperial “civil society” to serve as a bulwark against the rising “anti-French sentiment” on the continent and to actively or passively validate neoliberal economic options as solutions to African problems.
It was in this vein that the French president asked Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe to convene a group of personalities supposedly representing the continent’s peoples. Its mission: to organize popular consultations in a dozen countries across Africa and in the diaspora and, on that basis, to deliver recommendations at the Montpellier summit — “the event to reinvent the Africa-France relationship.” Yet in accepting this mission, Mbembe and his group alienated many African intellectuals and had to justify themselves repeatedly in the French media against accusations of intellectual betrayal.
The profile of African intellectuals “acceptable” to the French presidency and foreign ministry includes, on the one hand, those who have no apparent objections to the deployment of the neoliberal logic on a continental scale. On the other hand, it includes those who, like Achille Mbembe, distance themselves from anti-imperialism and even suggest that France should organize a “great transition” aimed at installing democracy in Central Africa. These intellectuals have gained a reputation in the West on the basis of a sanitized discourse palatable to Western publics — but often reject an African intellectual tradition built around the twin principles of Pan-Africanism and anti-capitalism.
In colonial times, France selected partners for dialogue from among the “proper” liberation movements. After independence, the “good” presidents and political leaders were promoted to the detriment of the “bad” ones, who were removed from power or assassinated with support from Paris. The stakes at the Montpellier summit may well be no greater than Paris’s desire to contain its political and diplomatic disrepute and relative economic decline on the African continent. Enlisting, for the occasion, the services of a neoimperial civil society with almost zero organic connection to the people is probably not what one could call a well-thought-out strategy.
Beyond the pretense of the Montpellier summit, the good news is that the struggle for a “second independence” is being carried forward by Pan-Africanist initiatives such as the Alternative Report on Africa (AROA) and the Collective for the Renewal of Africa (CORA). Published in May 2021, the first edition of the AROA is entitled The Sovereignty of African Societies Facing Globalization. Launched in April 2021, CORA brings together over a hundred academics from a variety of fields, ranging from the arts to hard sciences. As stated in its manifesto, its aim is to nurture linguistic diversity while working for “the emergence of a truly independent and sovereign Africa, working toward a future marked by an authentically humanistic ethos and universal solidarity.”
Frantz Fanon argued that African intellectuals’ responsibility should be understood as a responsibility toward the liberation of Africa. We would do well to remember that today.