President Emmanuel Macron kicks off a three-nation West African tour on Monday on the first trip to Africa of his new term as he seeks to revive France’s postcolonial relationship with the continent.
Macron will begin his July 25-28 tour, also the first adventure outside Europe of his new term, with a visit to Cameroon, before heading to Benin and then ending the trip in Guinea-Bissau.
Food supply issues will be high on the agenda of the talks, with African nations fearing shortages, particularly of grain due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But security will also loom large as France prepares to complete its withdrawal from Mali this year, with all countries in the region seeking to stave off fears of Islamist insurgencies.
The trip to three countries that are rarely on the itinerary of world leaders comes with a Macron, who won a new mandate in April, pledging to maintain his candidacy for a new relationship between France and Africa .
France has also followed with concern the emergence of other powers seeking to establish themselves in an area that Paris still considers to be part of its sphere of influence, notably Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but also increasingly plus China and Russia.
“Political priority” The tour “will show the president’s commitment to the process of renewing relations with the African continent,” said a French presidential official, who requested anonymity.
He will point out that the African continent is a “political priority” of his presidency.
In Cameroon, torn by ethnic violence and an insurgency by English-speaking separatists, Macron will meet President Paul Biya, 89, who has ruled the country for nearly 40 years and is the world’s longest-serving non-royal leader.
Biya ruled the country with an iron fist, refusing demands for federalism and suppressing rebellion by separatists.
Macron will visit Benin, a neighbor of Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, on Wednesday. The north of the country has faced deadlier attacks, with the jihadist threat now spreading from the Sahel to the Gulf of Guinea countries.
He is likely to be praised for championing the return in November of 26 historical treasures stolen in 1892 by French colonial forces in Abomey, capital of the former kingdom of Dahomey located south of present-day Benin. .
Benin has long been praised for its thriving multi-party democracy. But critics say its democracy has steadily eroded under President Patrice Talon over the past half-decade. Opposition leader Reckya Madougou was sentenced in 2021 to 20 years in prison for terrorism.
On Thursday, Macron will wrap up his tour of Guinea-Bissau, torn by political crisis as its President Umaro Sissoco Embalo prepares to take the reins of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Rethinking strategy With all the countries criticized by activists for their rights record, the Elysée Palace insisted that issues of governance and rights be raised, admittedly “without media noise but in the form of direct exchanges between the Heads of State”.
Macron’s first term was marked by visits to non-French-speaking African countries, including regional powers Nigeria and South Africa, as he sought to engage with the whole continent and not just with the former French possessions.
Benin is a former French colony, but Guinea-Bissau was once a Portuguese colony while Cameroon’s colonial heritage is a mixture of British and German as well as French.
Macron meanwhile insisted that France’s military presence in the region will adapt rather than disappear once Mali’s withdrawal is complete.
He announced last week that an overhaul of the French presence would be completed by autumn, saying the army should be “less exposed” in the future but that its deployment remains a “strategic necessity”.
Mali’s withdrawal follows a breakdown in relations with the country’s ruling junta, which Western states accuse of relying on Wagner’s Russian mercenaries rather than European allies to fight an Islamist insurgency.