A ONE YEAR AGO Achille Mbembe, Cameroonian postcolonial writer, lambasted Emmanuel Macron’s African policy. France, he writes, has he still not “understood that, far from being transitory, the discredit into which France has fallen is a structural and multigenerational phenomenon and not the result of the victimization of a few former -colonized?
On October 8, during a France-Africa summit in the French city of Montpellier, none other than Mr. Mbembe will lead a discussion between the president and a dozen young people. The approximately 3,000 guests, from Africa and its diaspora in France, will be entrepreneurs, activists, intellectuals, directors, scientists and students. No African head of government is invited.
The official point, specifies the Elysee, is “to accelerate the development of relations between France and Africa” that Mr. Macron had greeted in a speech in Ouagadougou in 2017. Then, the freshly elected president declared to the students from the Burkinabè capital: “I am from a generation for whom the crimes of European colonization cannot be contested” and “from a generation which does not come to tell Africans what to do”. It was like a symbolic moment that could herald a less strained and suspicious link between France and Africa. The president has since returned art to Senegal and Benin, has promised an end to the CFA franc in West Africa and asked forgiveness for France’s share of responsibility for the genocide in Rwanda.
Yet mistrust of French politics has at least hardened, as has French frustration over these suspicions. Mr. Macron maintains 5,100 soldiers in the Sahel as part of an anti-jihadist mission supported by the United States, Operation Barkhane. It will end this in northern Mali, close three military bases there, and remodel it from a base in Niger around a European special forces unit, Takuba. In August, the French achieved tactical success when a drone strike killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
Jihadists and terrorists continue to thrive in the region, however, in areas beyond state control, as do abuses by government soldiers. Democracy and the rule of law are trampled with abandonment from Mali to Guinea. France generally turns a blind eye to coups d’état. But he is losing patience. On September 25, Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maïga, installed after the second coup in a year, accused Macron of “mid-air abandonment”, and said he had no no choice but to look to others for security. He was referring, without naming it, to Wagner, a group of Russian mercenaries. Florence Parly, French Minister of Defense, described as “scandalous” the idea that French soldiers are leaving the region. But she also warned Mali that a Wagner contract would jeopardize its military presence.
In the midst of such tension, the ulterior objective of the summit is a “need to clarify the way in which France is questioned”, explains a presidential assistant. The idea is to let each other voice their grievances, in the hope of clearing the air at the non-governmental level. The French feel “reproached for the silence”, says the Elysee, and when they speak, “for the interference”.
Mr Macron will have his work cut out for him, partly on his own initiative. A few days before the summit, he drew the ire of Algerians by speaking of a “politico-military system” which “completely rewrote official history” based on “a hatred of France”. Algeria has closed its airspace to French military planes. France says it will reduce the number of visas issued in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia unless the trio cooperate to take back deported illegal immigrants.
This week, Malian military leaders protested when Mr Macron criticized the absence of a government in parts of their country. “You could say it’s a difficult time to express differences,” says Hervé Berville, a Rwanda-born MP for Mr. Macron’s party, “or you could say it has never been more relevant or more important to do so. ” ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Painful Liaisons”