African studiesPolitical studies

The ‘New’ Africa-France Summit Is More Form Than Substance

Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede

For the first time since the inaugural event in 1973, the Franco-Africa Summit—rebranded as the New Africa-France Summit, or as some referred to it on Twitter and other social media platforms, #AfricaFranceRemix—did not feature a single African head of state or government, or ministerial delegation. Instead, the gathering in the French Mediterranean city of Montpellier brought together nearly 3,000 young businesspeople, artists, writers, researchers, athletes and students from across France, Africa and the broader diaspora. 

The summit came as France’s primacy in its historical “pre carre”—or sphere of influence—is being increasingly contested, not only by lingering local resentments over its colonial legacy, but also by external rivals, including Russia, China and even Turkey. It also took place against the backdrop of crises in relations between France and Mali, Algeria and Morocco, as well as a broader effort by French President Emmanuel Macron to address the legacy of France’s colonial and postcolonial past. A recent report commissioned by Macron acknowledged France’s “overwhelming responsibilities” in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, an issue that has poisoned relations between Paris and Kigali for decades. Before that came a government-commissioned report on the legacy of French colonial rule in Algeria. And recent events in Guinea, as well as the beginning of the trial of several suspects including Blaise Compaore, the former president of Burkina Faso, for the assassination of Thomas Sankara in 1987 have also reopened old wounds on the continent. 

The Montpellier summit began with a number of roundtable discussions on democracy, development cooperation, sports and the restitution of African artifacts stolen by France. As a prelude to the “new” summit, Cameroonian academic Achille Mbembe was tasked with leading a number of Africa-France dialogues. The encounters, involving more than 3,600 people and held in 12 African countries and within the France-based African diaspora, culminated in a final report submitted to Macron outlining a new approach to Africa-France relations in order to meet “the challenges of tomorrow.” 

The report covers a range of themes, including the environment, technology, the legacy of slavery and French colonialism, the CFA franc monetary system, and security agreements between France and various African governments. Framed as a way to reinvent relations between the African continent and France, the document contains a number of recommendations, including one—endorsed by Macron—to create an “innovative fund for democracy in Africa” to help “agents of change” focused on democratic governance.

Scratch beneath the surface of these supposed goodwill gestures from Paris, and there is little evidence of a policy shift.

In some ways, the New Africa-France Summit serves as the capstone of Macron’s effort to chart what he regards as a new relationship between several African countries and their former colonizer. Beginning with his now-famous Ouagadougou speech in 2017, Macron has touted Africa’s young people as the linchpin of a new partnership-based engagement centered on mutual interests. During his time in office, Macron has also made symbolic efforts to build new bridges outside France’s former colonies, undertaking highly publicized visits to Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, becoming the first French president to visit that East African country since its independence from Britain.

But scratch beneath the surface of these supposed goodwill gestures, and there is little evidence of a policy shift. Even before Macron, several French presidents dating back to Jacques Chirac have spoken extensively about supporting African youth and their aspirations, and shifting relations away from France’s colonial legacy. In practice, however, they managed only minor cosmetic changes at the margins, while broadly maintaining continuity in France’s approach to economic and security issues on the continent. Arguably nowhere has this tension come to a head more than Mali, where relations between Bamako and Paris are at their nadir. The state of affairs involving France and its former colonies raises important questions about whether this “new” summit is really an exercise in form over substance. 

“It is difficult to conceive the usefulness of such a summit to transform the relationship between France and African countries,” Yolande Bouka, an assistant professor of gender and politics & international relations at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, told me. After all, she added, “the summit took place in France, once again, placing paternalistic France at the head of the table.”

In explaining why she is skeptical of a new dawn in Africa-France relations, Bouka pointed to floundering efforts to reform or end the CFA—the regional, Paris-backed currency used across most of West Africa’s French-speaking countries—as well as the French government’s unwillingness to discuss the need for reparations after decades of postcolonial economic exploitation and oppression. Macron’s paternalism in talking about African affairs also signals that little will change. “This summit should have been an opportunity to offer a mea culpa for his destructive policies in the region,” Bouka concluded. “Trying to recalibrate the narrative of his relationship with Africa with a show of light during an election year is insulting, but on-brand.” 

There’s also the fact that the premise of the new format for the summit is too little, too late, when it comes to public opinion on the African continent. Surveys demonstrate that France’s favorability is continuing to decline in Africa, amid rising competition from China, the U.S. and other international actors. The “revamped” summit will hardly change any minds without a considerable shift in policy. 

“The old format is obsolete, and the relationship has been criticized—rightfully—for its colonial heritage and dynamics,” Ousmane A. Diallo, a Francophone West Africa researcher at Amnesty International, told me. “I think Macron has tried many times to rejuvenate and recreate the dynamics, by pushing the restitution of African artifacts, supporting youth and entrepreneurship via the Presidential Council for Africa, and even on the CFA.” He said that the new format of privileging engagement with youth and civil society over political leaders, and delegating the organization of the summit to a renowned intellectual, is a direct response to African critics of francophone African elites. The rebooted framework is also an attempt to create a new dynamic, he added, at a time when French influence in Africa is drawing more criticism locally and being challenged by other external actors, primarily Russia and Turkey. If Macron has not yet enjoyed much success, Diallo added, it is “because objective interests still matter, and the linkages inherited from colonization still matter.”

Among those who entertain some cautious optimism about the possibility of a shift in relations is Alfa Diallo, a Guinean civil society activist who attended the Montpellier gathering. “The summit was an opportunity to discuss with President Macron, which allowed us to make the voices of young Africans heard,” Diallo told me. 

He tempered this optimism with some realism, pointing specifically to France’s sordid past in Guinea, where many continue to perceive France as a colonizer and believe that contemporary events can be explained in large part by France’s colonial legacy there. And he added that, for now, there is not much in the way concrete action. 

“But this dialogue gives me hope for a change in relations with France,” he concluded, arguing that a shift to an independent partnership is what Guineans and Africans broadly want.

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Culture Watch

Netflix is teaming up with UNESCO to fund six short films centered around African folktales, beginning in 2022. The U.N. body and the streaming giant launched a short film competition on “African Folktales, Reimagined,” which will run for a month. Each of the six winners will receive a production grant of $75,000 as well as a $25,000 prize. 

“We want to find the bravest, wittiest, and most surprising retellings of some of Africa’s most-loved folktales and share them with entertainment fans around the world in over 190 countries,” UNESCO said in a joint statement with Netflix.

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Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

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