French president Emmanuel Macron faces an uphill battle on an upcoming trip to Africa to win over countries in a continent that is increasingly resistant to the one-time colonial powers playing a role in their affairs.
Macron is set to visit Gabon, Angola, Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo starting on Wednesday in what will be his 18th trip to Africa since he took office in 2017 with the promise of a new “partnership of equals” approach to the continent.
Delivering on that goal has proven difficult for Macron, who once argued he could help turn the page as France’s first president born after its former colonies became independent. Yet as well as the lingering tensions between France and the countries of its former sphere of influence, Paris faces competition from new rivals China and Russia, a trend that has only intensified since the Ukraine war.
Antoine Glaser, an author and longtime observer of France and Africa, noted how Macron’s trip came as France was changing its strategy following the end of its decade-long Operation Barkhane to fight jihadis in the Sahel region.
“Macron is going to Africa this time in a position of weakness,” he said. “Russian influence on the continent is rising, France is on the defensive after the end of Barkhane and French companies are losing market share.”
Macron will use a speech on Monday to lay out his “priorities and method to deepen the partnership between France, Europe and Africa”, the Élysée Palace said.
The president is also expected to address how France’s military will adopt a lower-profile than during Operation Barkhane, which at its peak involved about 5,000 troops before its was wound up late last year. The new posture will involve French troops in Africa acting more in support roles for training or intelligence, and consultations over specifics are under way with various countries.
An Élysée Palace official said the trip to four African countries that Macron has not visited before showed how France wants to be a constructive partner on matters unrelated to security, such as fighting climate change.
“The military topic eclipsed everything else we did in Africa during Operation Barkhane, whether it be economically or politically,” the official said. “We have to change this since the political situation in Africa today is different . . . especially among young people, who reject all forms of foreign military presence.”
But the transition has put France on the back foot amid rising anti-French sentiment on the continent, stoked by increasing Russian influence. French troops withdrew from Mali and the Central African Republic last year, and from Burkina Faso this month when the government there ordered them to leave.
Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group have filled the void, taking on security roles at the request of Bangui and Bamako.
Sylvie Baïpo-Temon, CAR foreign minister, told the Financial Times as the last French troops were leaving her country in December that they needed Russian support because France had failed to pacify dangerous rebel groups. “If [the French presence] had been a success we wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Environmental protection in the Congo basin, which spans six countries and is the world’s second biggest tropical forest after the Amazon, will be another focus of the trip. In Gabon, Macron will co-host with President Ali Bongo the One Forest summit that aims to rally international support and financing to protect such ecosystems.
In Angola, a partnership on agricultural production is in the works to help the former Portuguese colony reinforce its food security and reduce its reliance on imports. France’s economic presence in Angola has long been symbolised by energy giant Total. “In each place we want to show how we can work with African countries in new ways,” said the French official.
The final stop will be to DRC where a conflict has been brewing between the country and neighbouring Rwanda, which Macron has sought to mediate. Kinshasa accuses Kigali of invading the mineral-rich east of the country with a proxy army, claims Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
Analysts said Macron would have to tread carefully because he was seen as close to Rwandan president Paul Kagame. In a rapprochement with Kagame, who had previously expelled a French ambassador and ditched French for English as an official language, Macron visited Kigali in 2021 to admit France’s responsibility in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
“It’s an important visit because there have recently been doubts in Congolese public opinion about France’s attitude, particularly in relation to the situation with Rwanda,” said Patrick Muyaya, the communications minister of the DRC, a former Belgian colony, which is the largest French-speaking country in Africa. “It is an expression of support from the French people.”