President Emmanuel Macron says he was born after the end of colonialism and wants that to dictate policy, but is it just lip service?
A few months after he was elected, French President Emmanuel Macron marked his first Africa tour in 2017 to convince Africans to turn a new page after the dark chapters of France’s colonial history in Africa.
“I am like you,” young President Macron said to young students who filled the small hall at the University of Ouagadougou in former French colony Burkina Faso.
“I am like you from the generation that never knew Africa as a colonised continent,” he said while youth protested the French President outside, chanting “Down with new-colonialism”.
Four years on, as Macron visits the Rwandan capital Kigali on Thursday, this time Rwandans, including genocide survivors, listened closely to his speech at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the final resting place for over 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide.
"Standing here today, with humility and respect, by your side, I have come to recognise our responsibilities," Macron said, asking for forgiveness from the victims of the genocide.
Macron’s speech fell short of an apology. Genocide survivors said they regretted the lack of 'clear apology' from Macron.
A new leaf?
Nonetheless, the highly symbolic visit has come amid the two countries aiming to normalise relations after a quarter-century of tensions.
For decades, France’s (in)actions during the genocide in 1994 have been at the centre of fierce debates on its paternalistic relations with the African countries. Rwanda has long accused Paris of complicity in the mass killings, as well as supporting the Hutu-led government at the expense of the oppression of Tutsis. The contested history hasn’t only ruined relations between Paris and Kigali, but has left a stain on France in the international arena.
Now, Macron believes this must change. The French President is presenting himself as the standard-bearer of a new generation that after brutal French colonisation aims to redefine France’s relations with African countries - a long history with disturbing memories that haunts contemporary France to this day.
Last March, the report commissioned by Macron found that France bears ‘’overwhelming responsibilities’’ over the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that killed as many as 800,000 people in just 100 bloody days.
Blinded by its excessive ambition to maintain its neo-colonial dominance, the report says that Paris chose to support the ‘’racist, corrupt and violent regime’’ responsible for the genocide and turned a blind eye to preparations for the massacres.
However, as much as the report sounds like a rare but honest confession by the French state, the report also cleared France of complicity in one of the most dramatic events in contemporary African history that have fueled decades of violence and instability in the Central African region.
The authors concluded that there is no evidence in the archives that demonstrate France had “genocidal intent”. The carefully written report also avoided placing the blame on the French establishment but instead moved it onto the French president at the time, François Mitterrand, accusing him of supporting the regime in order to advance and reinforce his own influence and interests in the country.
But for the two countries, the benefits of cooperation seem to outweigh the bad memories of genocide after 27 years.
Phil Clark, Professor of International Politics at SOAS says, in other times Rwanda would have reacted harshly to the French report which fell short of acknowledging France's central role. But now, Clark says Rwanda sees the benefits in better ties with Paris, “capitalising on France's renewed economic and military interests across Africa.”
“Rwanda's careful, pragmatic language is a sign that it is now putting renewed diplomatic, economic and military ties ahead of fighting these historical battles,” Phil Clark, Professor of International Politics at SOAS told TRT World.
“Macron sees Rwanda as an increasingly influential player across Africa - with Rwandan peacekeepers in Mali and the Central African Republic and Kagame continuing to wield substantial continental influence,” Professor Clark said.
Beyond Francophone Africa
Rapprochement with Rwanda is part of a wider effort from Macron to reset the relations with Francophone Africa, according to Nathaniel Powell, an associate researcher at Lancaster University.
“It involves symbolic gestures such as returning some stolen artefacts to a number of African countries, expanding his relations with the Franco-African diaspora, declassifying archives related to Rwanda and assassinated leader Thomas Sankara and gesturing at reforming the CFA franc [France-regulated West African currency],” Powell told TRT World.
But away from the crises in Francophone Africa, France is working to build new partnerships, particularly with emerging African economies which were not colonies of France, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa.
“They [Anglophone East African countries] have resources, financial means and growth. I’m not convinced that what is seen as ‘our Africa’ (France’s former colonies) can offer the business opportunities we have elsewhere on the continent,” a French diplomat said during Macron’s East Africa tour in 2019.
However, Powell said, despite the attempt to paint a different image of France, the overwhelming military and security dimension of France’s engagement with the continent has generated lots of resentment.
Due to the security-prioritised approach, anti-French sentiment is still high across the Sahel, particularly in Mali where despite the presence of 5,000 troops, France failed to contain the violence which split into neighbouring countries, further destabilising the entire region. While two-thirds of the territories are occupied by various militant groups, the governance crisis has seen two military coups in nine months.
President Macron called Tuesday’s coup in Mali “unacceptable”. However, a month ago Macron endorsed a military coup led by a 37-year-old four-star general in Chad who has been a vital figure in France’s security apparatus in the region for decades.
Sitting next to the General, Macron said "France will not let anybody threaten Chad's stability and integrity," after autocrat President Idriss Deby, who oversaw 30 years of repressive rule and whom Macron called a “loyal and “courageous friend”, died.
In contrast to Macron’s effort to reset France’s neocolonial image, Paris’ traditional strongman-favouring strategy is evident in North Africa too. Paris is one of the largest weapons suppliers to the autocratic rule of Abdel Fattah al Sisi in Egypt despite an infamous record of extrajudicial killings and rampant human rights violations.
In Libya, France has long supported the warlord Khalifa Haftar in his assault against the UN-recognised government in Tripoli despite Haftar’s record of massacres and mass graves.
In Senegal, another former French colony in West Africa, many French-owned businesses were targeted during the youth-led anti-government protests over rampant inequality and corruption last March. The incident marked a boiling over of rising discontentment among the youth against France’s socio-economic dominance in a country where nearly 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty.
Asked about whether Macron will manage to redefine France’s engagement with Africa, “this is a very old song,” said Professor Bruno Charbonneau at Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Canada.
“Every French president since Charles de Gaulle promised to reform French policy, military posture and security objectives on the African continent...Yet, all presidents have ended up engaging French troops in African conflicts and security affairs,” Charbonneau told TRT World.
The last decade has witnessed increasingly militarised French engagement on the content. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the first French President to visit Rwanda in 25 years and said France made “mistakes” in 2010, tried to move relations beyond the traditional clientelist networks of French-African affairs.
But Sarkozy’s presidency was marked by the military intervention in the 2011 election crisis in the Ivory Coast, as well as the toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
As the Libyan crisis split into Mali, then-President Francois Hollande ordered the French military to clear northern Mali of militant groups - and more troops to the Central African Republic later in 2013. Operation Barkhane, which consists of roughly 5,000 French troops, has continued to fight in the Sahel since 2014 with no end in sight.
Charbonneau believes the structural foundations of France’s relations in Africa makes it hard to redefine.
“The French military has an institutional interest in sustaining French military engagement in Africa or at least sustaining the capacity to intervene...with much influence on the policymaking process and decision-making when it comes to Francophone Africa.”