France and Africa — a fraught past but a firm future relationship
France has a complex history with the continent, but wants to put in the work to ensure an equitable working partnership from now on
Africa and France share a deep-rooted history. A complex history, which can generate misunderstandings and misconceptions. A history of human bonds. To move forward, we need to face this history head-on. This work is essential to promote and expand an equitable relationship and a true partnership.
Our relations experienced a new beginning in November 2017. French President Emmanuel Macron, while in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, proposed a new agenda between the French people and African countries. Macron recognised the wrongs of the past in Africa, saying: “The crimes of European colonisation cannot be disputed and are part of our history.” A difficult issue not only to reflect on, but one that paves the way for a sincere and respectful partnership.
One of the challenges in this historical process includes the idea of neo-colonialism in Africa, especially in Western Africa, with old clichés about “Françafrique”. France has been working on several initiatives to dispel these shadows of the past. With the restitution of African cultural heritage, for example, we are creating a joint approach to consider our common legacy, and work on conservation and art exhibitions together.
France has made concrete gestures: recently, a law was adopted by the French parliament to allow for the permanent return of historic artefacts to Senegal and Benin. These are first steps in this direction; others will follow. To this day, France is the only country that has initiated this restitution policy.
France was also at the forefront on the issue of the moratorium on debt following the economic crisis caused by the pandemic
Another challenge for this relationship with Africa was the CFA franc. The reforms to transform the CFA franc into a new, common West African currency was implemented in 2020, putting an end to a symbolic marker of the past. Contrary to what some believe, countries that use the CFA franc decide their own monetary policy and do not pay any fees to the French government.
France has been standing with Africa when it comes to peace and security. We stand united in the fight against terrorism and restoring peace on the continent. In the Sahel region, the French military presence comes from a request from the sovereign countries of the region. The future of these operations will depend on a clear reiteration of our partners’ wish to see France remain at their side. Our approach has always been to support African capacities to face their own challenges. To this end, France has supported initiatives from the AU and regional organisations for peace and security on the continent.
France is committed to partnering with African countries to foster growth and innovation. One of the main drivers in this case has been the Digital Africa platform, a special fund to support young, innovative African companies. France is also investing in youth development and university co-operation: in 2019, 46% of foreign students in France were from Africa.
In July 2021, the new Africa-France summit in Montpellier will be a milestone. Instead of a traditional summit with heads of states and government, the emphasis will be put on youth, entrepreneurs, artists, civil society and all those who embody “generational renewal” in our relations.
We are also reaching out to the youth and artists on the continent through the “Africa 2020” season, which started in December 2020 and runs for six months. Africa 2020 can be described as an allegory of the cultural, spiritual, commercial, technological and political networks that have linked the nations of Africa throughout history. This platform will work to bring the whole of Africa together in one season to celebrate, reiterate and debate.
France has been partnering with the AU and African countries from the beginning to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. Based on its commitment to global health, and the fight against Aids, tuberculosis and malaria, France, together with SA and the World Health Organisation, initiated and has been at the forefront of the ACT-A/Covax initiative, to support all countries — including many African ones — to secure medicine, medical equipment and vaccines in the months to come, as soon as possible
France was also at the forefront on the issue of the moratorium on debt following the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Many African countries found themselves in a difficult situation as they had been encouraged to borrow heavily to finance infrastructure projects and pay the interests of previous debts. The G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative has led to a moratorium on debt service owed by the most fragile countries, especially in Africa.
This will be further strengthened through a financing summit for Africa in May 2021 in Paris. The EU has also provided extensive emergency aid.
Knowing and recognising where we come from is key to designing a true, equal partnership for our future. This is what France proposes to its African partners.
• Lechevallier is French ambassador to SA.
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