Will France Under Emmanuel Macron Still Be A Key Security Player in Africa?

Yesterday, only one week after the presidential election, Francois Hollande walked out of the Elysée palace, and Emmanuel Macron officially became the 8th president of France’s fifth Republic. Macron’s election was a political earthquake in France, with the political newcomer seemingly emerging from the wilderness. How he plays on the international stage–particularly in regards to French interests in Africa-is a key question mark surrounding the young leader.

“France is not a global power without Africa,” former Malian Minister of Culture Aminata Traoré recently reminded a panel of African journalists debating Hollande’s legacy on the continent. After a Hollande presidency, defined by a low-key yet decisive type of activism and engagement, what kind of partner will France be to African countries under Macron?

Macron’s lack of political roots in traditional French politics leaves open the possibility for a different kind of relationship with the continent.

Closely watched globally, Macron is expected to continue working with the same energy he spent building a brand new political movement over the last year – but this time as the President. During his campaign, Macron, a centrist, was able to pick and choose policy positions both right and left of the political spectrum. His youth – and relative lack of political experience – mean that, unlike Francois Hollande, the ultimate lifelong politician, Macron is perceived as an agent of change. Particularly in policy areas such as the relationship to Africa, Macron’s lack of political roots in traditional French politics leaves open the possibility for a different kind of relationship with the continent. However, even without being steeped and raised politically in the history of Francafrique, Macron may have limited room to maneuver on African policy.

Map from French Defense Ministry showing the current French military presence in the Sahel. With 4,000 forces spread across five countries, the French operation is a regional security lynchpin.

With Hollande, African leaders came to know a president who was willing to spend significant resources to defend partners. Detractors argue that Hollande’s decision to intervene in Mali and the Central African Republic were guided by the same priorities which led previous French President Sarkozy to intervene in Libya: control of resources, and an overemphasis on addressing threats emanating from the global war on terror. Strategically, France being an indispensable partner in the fight against terrorism in Africa, and a lynchpin of security in the region, helps to cement its position as a global power.

At the same time, even though the calculus may have been self-interested, in both Mali and the CAR, French interventions and participation in UN operations were crucial in helping stabilize the region, at least in the short run. France has also been active in urging other world powers in mobilizing around events and crises in Africa in forums such as the Security Council or the European Union. Inevitably, though, Hollande’s legacy was mixed, as he maintained close relationships with Chad’s Idriss Deby and Congo’s Denis Sassou-Nguesso, key regional allies,  embodying the classic French approach to African policy where autocratic tendencies are forgiven in exchange for better partnership terms.

In his official program, Macron makes little specific reference to security and defense policy in Africa; rather, the focus is on la “francophonie” and generic language around strengthening bonds through the promotion of the French language and digital diplomacy. His platform does mention, almost in passing, increasing the grants made by AFD (the French equivalent of USAID). On the topic of military intervention, Macron stated that France “will only engage in new military operations, outside of self defense, if the conditions for a political resolution to the crisis are in place.” Little detail is provided, though much ink is devoted to describing his international, globalist view of the world. With a strong mandate for change, Macron perhaps has the opportunity to change the French relationship to Africa, though on what terms?

In Nigeria – where the election of a French president typically never generates much interest – people are finding Macron – young and English-speaking – refreshing, in stark contrast to the career politicians who rule their country. France’s relationship to the African continent is fraught with a complicated, often ugly history, and Macron will – like his predecessors – be carrying that weight. With little to no interest from French voters – who are going to the polls again in June for key legislative elections – it’s unlikely Macron will take a fundamentally different approach from his predecessor, at least initially.

For now, Macron has hopefully understood that the French relationship to Africa is essential, and will continue to maintain course until he’s able to – or willing to – forge his own relationships and shape his own approach.