France’s Macron on four-nation tour of Africa aimed at resetting relations
French President Emmanuel Macron began a visit to Central Africa on Wednesday in a diplomatic effort to test a new “responsible relationship” with the continent amid rising anti-French sentiment in some of his former colonies.
He touched down in the Gabonese capital Libreville on Wednesday before heading to Angola, Congo-Brazzaville and the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Macron’s visit comes as Paris warns against Russia’s growing influence in French-speaking Africa, joining China, which has had a long-standing presence in the region.
Burkina Faso told France it was abandoning a 1961 agreement that provided the legal basis for French military aid, according to official letters seen by AFP on Wednesday.
In a speech on France’s Africa policy on Monday, Macron called for “mutual and responsible relations” with more than 50 countries, including on climate.
He reiterated his commitment to break with previous postcolonial policies.
“Our interests are first and foremost democracy,” as well as economic partnerships, he said.
He also said the French military would reduce its footprint on the continent in the coming months, although a military source and analyst said the French army chief might be reluctant to do so.
According to official figures, more than 3,000 French soldiers are deployed in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Djibouti.
Another 3,000 are in the Sahel further north, including Niger and Chad.
In Gabon, Macron will have dinner with President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Wednesday and present him with 900 recordings of songs, stories and other oral folklore produced in the country between 1954 and 1970.
On Thursday, he will attend the “One Forest” summit on protecting the world’s forests, including along the vast Congo River Basin.
Covering 1.62 million square kilometers (over 625,000 square miles), Central Africa’s forests are the second largest carbon sink on Earth after the Amazon.
They are also home to a huge biodiversity including forest elephants and gorillas, and bear traces of early human settlement.
But they face threats from poaching, deforestation for the oil palm and rubber industries, and illegal logging and mineral extraction.
>> Earth’s ‘green lung’ rainforests take center stage in talks in Gabon
Gabonese environmental activist Marc Ona Essanghi told AFP he was concerned that Macron’s visit would affect the main objective of the rainforest summit.
In the presidential election later this year, Gabonese people may instead see his presence as a political boost for Bongo, he said.
“What people are registering is Emmanuel Macron to support his candidacy,” he said.
Bongo, 64, has been president since 2009, when he succeeded his longtime ruling father.
Macron has insisted that Africa is a priority for his second term and visited Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau in July.
After Gabon, he travels to the former Portuguese colony of Angola on Friday. There, he will sign an agreement to develop the agricultural sector as part of efforts to strengthen France’s ties with English- and Portuguese-speaking Africa.
He will then stop in the Republic of Congo, another former French colony where President Denis Sassou Nguesso ruled for nearly 40 years, albeit several terms.
Finally, he will wrap up his trip on Saturday in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was ruled by Belgium during the colonial era.
President Felix Tshisekedi has chaired the Democratic Republic of the Congo since January 2019 but is due to be re-elected later this year, and the opposition has also expressed reservations about the French president’s visit.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has accused its smaller neighbor Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebel group in the east of the country, an allegation denied by Kigali.
Carrying Russian flags, dozens of young Congolese demonstrators rallied outside the French embassy in the capital Kinshasa on Wednesday to condemn Macron’s visit.
Anti-French rallies have erupted in the former colonies of Mali and Burkina Faso in the Sahel region in recent months.
After years of helping both countries fight jihadists, Paris has feuded with military authorities there and has withdrawn troops from both countries.
France and its Western allies accuse Wagner, a Russian mercenary group notorious for its activities in Ukraine, of being active in Mali and the Central African Republic, countries that were also once ruled by France.
Paris also accused Russia of spreading anti-French propaganda.