Election Will Shape France’s Relationship with Africa

To say that Africa is not a foreign policy priority in the French election would be an understatement. This is understandable, however, considering the dire state of France’s economy and the many international challenges the country faces. But because of France’s historically special relationship with its former colonies, would-be presidents can never completely disregard the continent.

Voters who have sifted through the candidates’ manifestoes in search of their Africa policies find a choice between the anti-globalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron whose vision of Africa espouses his liberal internationalist worldview.

Indeed, Macron, a former economy minister, flaunting his modern view of the world, described colonization as “a crime against humanity” while on a trip to Algeria. Le Pen described this as a slight to France. Macron has also promised Africans that he will pursue an ambitious agenda that includes women’s rights, climate change, infrastructure development, and a prosperous private sector.  

In line with his liberal ideology, Macron has also argued for an economic partnership between the African Union and the European Union. At home, he posits for a Presidential Council for Africa that will advise him on African matters and help him make decisions that fit his overall strategy. The only point on which he and Le Pen more or less agree is on terrorism—both candidates argue for troops to remain in the Sahel for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, the anti-globalist movement has been gathering steam. US President Donald J. Trump and Nigel Farage, a former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, both exploited anger against globalization and growing income inequality to register big wins for their nationalist agendas. Le Pen of the National Front could be next.

Despite spending the last few years working tirelessly to soften the image of her party, damaged by decades of xenophobic rhetoric from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Le Pen remains deeply committed to destroying the current global economic order.

In keeping with her effort to normalize her party without abandoning its core ideology, Le Pen’s Africa policy is a carefully crafted mix of staunch anti-immigration policy at home that she hopes will get her elected and an Africa-friendly policy abroad that would allow her to advance her agenda.

Domestically, despite the softer tone, Le Pen remains a traditional far-right politician. She wants to abolish dual nationality for Africans, re-introduce a bill that could strip French citizens of their nationality if convicted of terrorism, proposes tougher measures on undocumented migrants and wants to end free schooling for their already enrolled children.

In Africa, however, the National Front’s strategy is to turn on the charm offensive by stoking the growing nationalistic sentiments on the continent. Earlier this year, during her historic visit to Chad, Le Pen strove to target what she perceives as the symbols of Africa’s lost sovereignty, while touting cooperation in matters of terrorism and immigration. For example, she wants to see the CFA Franc, the controversial common currency, abolished and promises to be the continent’s best partner in its fight against the much-loathed International Criminal Court.

Moreover, she cites co-development as the only possible preventive measure against mass migration and the rise of terrorism. The panacea, Le Pen argues, is to hike development aid from 0.3 percent to 0.7 percent of GDP and continue France’s military cooperation in the Sahel “as long as our African partners would allow us to.”             

If no major political leader on the continent has thus far lent their official support to the far-right leader, some of Le Pen’s major announcements seem to be striking a chord with the most radical elements on the continent. For example, the popular self-styled pan-African anti-globalist, Kémi Séba cites some inconsistencies in Le Pen’s policies for not throwing his full support behind the “Bleu Marine” movement, but admits to being seduced by her stance on the CFA Franc. In fact, the single currency, seen by many as a neocolonial symbol, was the subject of peaceful protests in over twenty African and European capitals earlier this year, which forced some prominent African leaders to come out in favor of the embattled currency.

Ultimately, the reason Le Pen’s shrewd tactics register on the continent is because of the perception that the special relationship with France has not always been a fair one to Africans. Africa specialist Antoine Glaser’s argument that French MNCs, unlike other foreign companies, hire mostly expatriates at the expense of the qualified local resources further underlines this point.

Nevertheless, the majority of Africans support Macron’s internationalist worldview. But the reality is that whoever is elected president of France on May 7 will need a balanced approach to avoid fueling anti-French sentiment in Africa.

France has economic, military, and security interests in Africa and will, of course, need to protect them, but the next president will have to do so with a mixture of policies proposed by both Le Pen as well as Macron. He or she will also need to know when to step back and let Africans debate certain issues as they cannot be perceived to be meddling in—the debate on the CFA Franc, for example.

Strike the right balance and France will enjoy all the fruits of globalization on the continent, fail to do so and the growing anti-globalist movement might start to threaten France’s historical relationship with its former colonies.

Mayecor Sar  is an  Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow and a policy advisor at the presidential delivery unit in the Office of the President of Senegal. Follow him at @Mayecorsar.

Image: Posters featuring French presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! and Marine Le Pen of the National Front are displayed in Saint-Josse, northern France, on May 5. French voters will elect a new president on May 7. (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)