Macron touts new relationship with Africa – with mixed success

French President Emmanuel Macron (second left) arrives for the New Africa-France Summit in Montpellier, southern France, on 8 October 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Cole)

French President Emmanuel Macron has described the New Africa-France Summit as the start of a new movement between France and African states. Critics have, however, questioned whether the former colonial power is willing to change.

Montpellier is a young city with an old heart. At its centre is its university, established 801 years ago and among the oldest in the world, with its famous medicine faculty, the oldest one still operating, with alumni such as Petrarch, Nostradamus and François Rabelais.

This history means that more than a quarter of the city’s 280,000 inhabitants are students, one of the highest proportions in Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and Cameroonian-born curator Koyo Kouoh at the Benin stand on restitutions of African heritage at the New Africa-France Summit in Montpellier. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Guillaume Horcajuelo)

This youthfulness is also why the New Africa-France Summit, hosted by President Emmanuel Macron, took place in Montpellier, in the Sud de France Arena.

The city’s mayor, Philippe Saurel (42), said he was “full of enthusiasm” when Macron’s office approached him to say he wanted to hold the summit there. 

“We are ready for the future,” he said in a brief opening speech. “Africa is the continent of the future, and I can feel that Africa is at home in Montpellier.”

The summit — which had no other heads of state on its guest list — is a follow-on from Macron’s speech in November 2017 at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, where he announced the start of a new relationship with African countries, with a focus on facilitating access to school and higher education, providing support for entrepreneurship and innovation, enabling the “forging of a new common consciousness, including by strengthening our remembrance ties”, and partnering on green initiatives.

His new direction has been criticised by some Africans who feel that it is merely window dressing and that France still retains its old, patronising, colonial ways, and there was a considerable social media backlash against some of those from francophone Africa who did make it to the summit.

“I know of some people who took selfies with Macron but who won’t post it because of this,” an entrepreneur in West Africa said.

Many of the African delegates — intellectuals, small entrepreneurs, cultural workers, activists and journalists — were also in open revolt because, even though their flights and hotel costs were covered by the French government, there was no allowance to cover the costs of transport to and from the airport in France, or for meals.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron (left) shares a laugh with French chef Mory Sacko before a dinner at the New Africa-France Summit in Montpellier. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Cole)

These expenses aren’t insignificant, and some felt that prior warning would have enabled them to at least bring money. African bank cards don’t automatically travel well, and a few people found themselves stranded and questioning the hospitality and understanding of their hosts.

Politically, there was also considerable tension from the Malian delegates, who are angry at France for downscaling its deployment to the Sahel to stave off jihadists after two coups in less than a year.

North Africans — from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia — were also unhappy after Macron announced he would limit French visas to citizens from these countries. 

Not all the town’s inhabitants knew about their important guests on Friday, or cared, but they were aware of the African festival and cultural events in the weeks prior. One student said she was too busy studying to realise that Macron was actually in town, but she supported the spirit of the event.

For some, the world is still small. Anti-vaxxers disrupted the tram service the day after the summit with a manifestation, or demonstration, while other youngsters celebrated the warm autumn days with maskless kissing in public.

“This new momentum has started. This is a new movement, first of all because this is what we owe Africa and all its youth,” said Macron in his opening speech at the summit to the 3,000 or so participants gathered in the hall.

The audience was regaled by African musicians for the two hours it took for Macron to catch up with his printed schedule, which included attending a basketball match in the court that was set up within the conference venue.

It was one of the first in-person events held in the city since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Almost 70% of France’s population has been vaccinated against Covid-19 and vaccine passports are required to enter many public spaces. In many respects, life has gone back to the old normal — except for the mask mandate on public transport, crowded inside spaces and the anti-vaccine protests.

French President Emmanuel Macron (centre) attends a meeting at the New Africa-France Summit in Montpellier. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Guillaume Horcajuelo)

Macron emphasised the youthfulness of the African continent in his speech by saying more than 70% of its population is under 30 years old.

He said the first reason for the summit was that France had a history with Africa, and it had a responsibility to find certain projects that responded to the needs of the African youth.

The second reason was that France had been built on its relationship with Africa. “We have more than seven million French individuals whose lives have been intimately linked to Africa, either through their first or second generations. This means that we cannot have a future project or any plans for the future, have a vision for France if we don’t take on board the history of France.”

His previously stated intention to pay more attention to anglophone countries was not quite reflected at the summit. Macron has visited Nigeria, where he was a French embassy intern 15 years ago, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa, among others, in an attempt to reach out to countries for business opportunities where France’s colonial baggage is a little lighter.

France has, for example, recently partnered with South Africa and the World Health Organization to establish the first messenger RNA technology transfer hub for Covid-19 vaccines, which is also set to benefit the rest of the continent.

At the summit, however, he didn’t speak English, although an interpretation service meant it was possible to follow his speeches. Some delegates expressed disappointment at the lack of English programmes and signage around the conference venue.

There were about two dozen delegates from South Africa, among them University of Pretoria Vice-Chancellor Tawana Kupe, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Montpellier for his work in “building academic partnerships across the African continent and the globe, and for his leadership in transformation of higher education at a global level”.

The University of Pretoria hosted Macron during his state visit to South Africa in May, which is where Kupe said the relationship was cemented. “No university, country or region of the world can do it alone, and this work is certainly not for ourselves, but for the very livelihood of our planet and our future generations,” he said during the acceptance ceremony. DM

Disclosure: The French government covered flight and hotel costs to Montpellier.


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