Macron visits Africa amid growing anti-French sentiment

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks with schoolchildren of the Jean Lartaut Middle School in Jarnac, western France, February 28, 2023. [AFP]

French President Emmanuel Macron begins a four-nation tour of Africa today amid rising anti-French sentiment that saw French troops recently leave Mali and Burkina Faso.

Macron will visit Gabon, Angola, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo amid a growing regional opposition to French involvement and support for closer ties with Russia.

Days before his departure, Macron announced France would be taking on a more deferential relationship with Africa that would require France to assume a “profound humility” in its dealings with the continent.

As part of the new strategy, French military bases in Africa will transform into military academies while others will eventually be co-run with African partners.

Two of the countries Macron plans to visit - Gabon and the Republic of Congo - are former French colonies.

“For a long time France has been the object of criticism and rejection because its position has always been one of dominance,” said Mahamoudou Savadogo, a security expert with Granada Consulting in Burkina Faso. “But there is a new opportunity to be had. There are youth who have never known colonization and there’s a new paradigm that France must consider in order to improve their relationship with other states.”

But as France has distanced itself from the continent, other parties have moved in. Private Russian military group Wagner has established a presence in Mali and the Central African Republic, where it has been accused of atrocities such as torture, rape and executions.

Aguibou Bouare is president of the National Human Rights Commission of Mali. He acknowledged the accusations against the Wagner Group but said it was up to the state to carry out an independent investigation to evaluate the allegations.

“For me, a country does not have friends - it has interests,” he said. “And any partner that can help us fight terrorism is encouraged. I’m not concerned about who that partner is.”

Deaths linked to Islamist militants on the continent skyrocketed by nearly 50 percent in the last year to more than 19,000 people, much of it in the western Sahel region, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

“Wagner’s arrival in Francophone Africa is the result of France’s failed Africa policies,” said Ahmat Yacoub Dabio, president of the Center for Development and Prevention of Extremism in Chad.

“France has always supported African dictatorships. It has always turned a blind eye to human rights violations. And France hasn’t made the effort to radically change its policies.”

France would do better to support Africa via health, infrastructure and education projects, Dabio added.

In his speech, Macron said he did not accept responsibility for the worsening security crisis in Mali and that he would not let France become a scapegoat.