France eyes “comeback” to Africa with President Macron’s East Africa tour

Saturday, 2019-03-16 17:13:37
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French President Emmanuel Macron talks to Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta as they leave a news conference after touring the Nairobi Central Railway in Nairobi, Kenya. (Reuters)
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NDO – Despite its binding relations with African countries in terms of history, culture and language, France seems to be “slower” than other competitors in the race for cooperation and investment in the “dark continent”. Therefore, strengthening Paris’s presence in the region was the key goal of President Emmanuel Macron’s recently concluded visit to Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, which is seen as a move to send a “comeback” message from France.

President Macron’s trip to the three East African countries held a historic meaning as it was the first visit made by a French head of state to Kenya since 1963 and to Ethiopia since 1966, as well as the first to Djibouti made by a French president for 20 years. Taking place in the context of France’s relations with African countries remaining stagnant and other powers unceasingly strengthening their cooperation and investment in the continent, President Macron’s visit reflects the goal of restoring Paris’s position through enhancing its economic, cultural and military presence in the region once lying in France’s “influential zone”.

Three stops on the French leader’s “journey back to Africa” were countries with favourable geographical locations, potential markets and the leading dynamic economies in East Africa. Despite being small in size, Djibouti holds a crucial geostrategic position, as it lies on the maritime route linking Asia with the Suez Canal and adjacent to the Bab el-Mandeb strait, which sees the shipment of roughly 4.8 million barrels of oil every day. Djibouti is a former French colony, where a seaport was built in 1844 to serve French military ships in and out. This is also the place where France has placed its largest military base in Africa, with about 1,450 soldiers stationed not far from bases of the US and some other nations.

Meanwhile, Kenya and Ethiopia are the fourth and fifth largest economies in the southern Sahara region, with dynamic markets and a relatively crowded middle class. Both countries reported a high economic growth rate last year, at 8% and 5%, respectively. With their dynamic private sectors and increasingly financial stability, these two French-speaking countries can serve as important gateways for France to easily penetrate into the market of hundreds of millions of people in the East African region.

France is seeking to maintain its bilateral relations with the East African countries in many fields and in the Francophonie space. Djibouti is a seaport investment and cooperation destination that is hardly ignored by France. Ethiopia tops the list of France’s trade surplus markets with some key items such as Airbus A350 or modern medicine. Meanwhile, Kenya, with its abundant oil reserves, is a stopover for many multinational corporations and big French companies. However, cooperation between France and the East African countries has been somewhat declining in recent times, partly due to Paris’s inadequate acceleration efforts, and more seriously because of the tough competition in the race to gain market shares and influence in the “dark continent” between the powers, not only the United States or the United Kingdom, but Asian partners as well.

The aforementioned problems are part of the motivation for France to launch a new “conquest” in its previously influenced areas. The concerns and practical cooperation projects taken along by President Macron in this “return journey” have been welcomed by regional partners with many expectations. Along with France’s desire to return, Djibouti hopes to become a new “Dubai”, capable of competing against the busy seaports in Africa. Ethiopia believes that the expansion of partnerships, including with France, contributes to maintaining its economic and political autonomy. For Kenya, apart from economic and energy projects, new directions in cooperation have opened, especially in terms of infrastructure and the environment.

In France’s “journey back to Africa”, there are not only economic and military contracts. A plan to build a clean city in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa, an environmental conference themed “One Planet” held in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, or President Macron’s visit to an ancient temple in Lalibela city and a world cultural heritage in northern Ethiopia, show the prospect of comprehensive cooperation between France and East African countries. In the context of fierce competition for influence in Africa, President Macron’s visit affirmed that France does not forget and continues to be a reliable partner of countries in the region.