Franco-African Relations in a New Presidential Era of Uncertainty in France: the Challenges


By Bola A. Akinterinwa

 Franco-African relations can refer to the relations between France and Francophone  African states in specific terms. It can also refer to the ties between the whole of Africa and France in general terms. In specific terms, Franco-African relations used to be a major component of French foreign policy, especially when emphasis was placed on the French Community. In this regard, French language was made a major instrument of Franco-African relations to the extent that even the 1957 Rome Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community was also negotiated to include a provision for Francophone African countries in Articles 131-136.

Besides, a separate Ministry of Cooperation was specifically established to deal with the Francophone community only, while the Quai d’Orsay had the responsibility of dealing with all other countries of the world. But for reasons of politico-economic force majeure, the Ministry of Cooperation gave way to the Quai d’Orsay as the only Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deal with the country’s external relations. This development later enabled the openness of Franco-African Summits to observer non-Francophone countries, including Nigeria. Economic considerations largely informed the decision of the openness.

In this regard, one critical challenge with which France is faced is how to sustain French speakingness in the world, especially that French Language is no longer the only and first language of diplomacy following the extinction of Latin. It should be recalled that France is generally recognised as the Father of Diplomacy and that French was the only diplomatic language in the 18th Century which remained so until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 when the Americans fought strenuously to include English language as an additional diplomatic language. Again, by force of necessity, other languages (Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic) would be included as working languages of the United Nations while French and English are retained as official languages.

 However, at the level of Africa, France’s political and cultural influence has the potential to wane in the foreseeable future for various reasons: dwindling French financial allocations for the development of French in Africa; lack of good rapports between French embassies and alumni of French tertiary institutions in non-French speaking African countries; French decision to be more involved in European affairs; deepening negative perception of France in intra-African relations, France’s own problems, terrorist threats, etc.

 For instance, France’s economy is in comatose. As recalled by Dr. Mehenou Amouzou, the French Treasury Agency said in March 2015 that 64.4% of French debts is held by non-residents, especially by Italy, whose own public debt is above 132% of its GDP and by Japan, whose debt-to-GDP is also not less than 245%. Consequently, in the words of Amouzou, ‘the two major creditors of France, Japan and Italy, have a comatose economy. And yet they are the only ramparts of a system about to sink. It is undeniable that the French State will sooner or later become as insolvent as Greece and the suburbs will be cut off from the supply lines… The claim of payment by the creditors if the debt is not honoured will be the property known as the African countries.’

 Explained differently, if the French public debt is over 2000 billion euro and cannot be reimbursed, and if public services are ‘kept to a minimum and France’s future is really bleak… how can a country that ransom more than 400 billion euros each year (from Africa) find itself in such a critical situation that it cannot repay its debt?’ Dr. Amouzou has asked.

A more disturbing perception of France is the Nicholas Sarkozy-Teodoro Nguema Obiang saga. Dr. Amouzou has also drawn attention to what former President Nicholas Sarkozy of France told President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea when he wanted to go to Libya with four other African leaders to mediate the  crisis in the country. President Nicholas Sarkozy simply ordered President Teodoro Obiang ‘not to set foot in Libya. President Sarkozy made it clear to him that his plane would be shot down if it ever happened…The International community has not reacted either. Who are the givers of these lessons? Now, it is Europe and Africa that are destabilised. Francophone Africa silently and automatically aligned itself with French policy and was the first to recognise the transitional government put in place,’            Dr Amouzou has submitted.

Perhaps more interesting is the Franco-Nigerian disagreement over the use of Africa only as a source of raw materials for the development of Europe. Today, Franco-Nigerian ties have considerably improved and France has also remained Nigeria’s fifth territorial immediate neighbour by geo-political propinquity, a factor that makes the monitoring and interest in political developments in France  necessary for the people of Nigeria, especially as they pertain to Africa-related global questions. It is in this regard that the May 7, 2017 second round presidential election in France is of interest to Africa, and particularly to Nigeria. As the French people will have a new leader as from May 7, 2017, what will the attitudinal disposition of the new leader be towards Africa and global questions? What are the likely dynamics of Franco-African relations under the new leadership? Will there be a Frexit? In the event of a Frexit, will there still be a strong European Union?

Future Dynamics and Global Questions

 The thrust of this column is that, regardless of whoever is elected the French president, there are some fundamental basics that cannot be set aside by any leader. Consequently, not much will change in France’s relationship with Africa. The ties will continue to be informed by crises and cooperation, suspicions and grant of development assistance to Africa. This is likely to be so because the existing dynamics are also likely to remain.

 The first is the obligation of protection of good relationship with political allies in foreign relations. For example, Article 87 of the French Fifth Republic Constitution of 4th October 1958 clearly states that ‘The Republic shall participate in the development of solidarity and cooperation between States and peoples having the French language in common.’ Article 88 adds that ‘The Republic may enter into agreements with States which wish to associate with it in order to develop their civilisations.’

From the foregoing, it is the Francophones, especially Francophone Africans, that are targeted by the French Constitution. The situational reality of international politics is such that solidarity can no longer be restricted to the Francophones. The foundation of the solidarity is French speakingness. But true enough, even at the level of Francophony, there is now a stiff competition in the use of French language in international relations. English language is increasingly being used, and, in fact, more than French in diplomacy. French is being Anglicised in many ways. And true again, the working languages of the United Nations have not been helpful.

 In the same vein, the use of English and French languages, and to a limited extent, Spanish, does not allow the development of the use of An African language in intra-African relations. African functionaries and diplomats have therefore been seized with the challenge of how to evolve or develop an African language, especially from one of the existing popular languages. The problem of use of foreign languages as lingua franca is to the extent that the understanding of global questions has to be subjected to various interpretations of foreign words.

 Secondly, a nation’s foreign policy cannot but be moderated by international developments. As at today, global questions have become multidimensional in nature, and so complex to the extent that every observer has to be monitoring who is likely to become the next leader of a country. The presidential campaigns and eventual election of Donald Trump in the United States attracted global attention simply because of his declared foreign policy, considered as anti-the-current-world-order. Donald Trump favours national protectionism. He is against immigrants and even good neighbourliness, if we consider US-Mexican ties. He supports Brexit.

 Russia is not only interested in EU politics but also in that of the United States. In the context of the EU, Russia is running away from EU sanctions and therefore wants a weaker EU. This is why Russia supports Brexit and Marine Le Pen for the French presidency. In the United States, Russia is seeking to assert an identity of a new superpower, which is not just a challenge for the United States to contend with, but also a signal to China, another contender targeting the super power throne.

It is within the context of the foregoing global conflict of interests that the French run-off presidential election is taking place next week Sunday, May 7. The 49-year old and leader of the far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen, on the one hand, and the 39-year old Emmanuel Macron, generally considered as a political neophyte and leader of En Marche political party, which he founded about a year ago, are contesting for the presidential seat in the Champs Elysees. Either of the two will be president, regardless of the various forecasts.          Even though forecasts have it that the next president of France would be Emmanuel Macron, there is nothing to suggest that Marine Le Pen cannot be elected. French voters generally do not vote on the basis of sentiments. A last dynamic can change a long standing position of a voter. Perhaps more important, the French electoral principles of désistement and cohabitation can still go a long way to influence voting.

The two principles are largely informed by the need for a strong leader and government, the determination of who and which should by a truly democratic system. It is useful to recall here that the French Fourth Republic (1946-1958) was most unstable: there were not less than 24 governments in the period and the government was not organisationally able to cope well with the Algerian crisis begun in 1954. It was the challenge of weak leadership that prompted the rejection of the indirect election of the President of the Republic by an electoral college and the amendment to the 1958 Constitution in 1962. The 1962 amendment introduced the popular election of the president by a run-off voting. Additionally, another constitutional amendment in 2000 reduced the tenure of the president from seven to five years.

More significantly, the Constitution provides for a semi-presidential system of government in which the ruling party may be different from the party having the majority in the National Assembly. In such a situation, a president elected on the basis of a universal direct suffrage cannot but be compelled to invite the leader of the political party having the highest number of votes to  form the government. It is at this level that the application of the principle of cohabitation also becomes a desideratum.

As regards désistement, it is a political compromise in which a losing presidential candidate, who is not qualified to contest in the run-off election, decides to call on all his or her supporters to vote for one of the two leading candidates during the run-off election. In many cases, voters are told to vote according to their conscience. Many times there are, when voters are also requested to vote for a particular candidate, and, however, the voters still had the last option of accepting to do so or not to do so. This is where the limitation of opinion polls lies.

Thirdly, the perception of France as Africa’s gendarme, as briefly mentioned above, cannot but continue to linger on for a longer time to come. The implication of President Sarkozy’s instruction and threats to shoot any aircraft carrying African leaders to Libya for peace making cannot but create serious political suspicions and impediments in how the new president of France, no matter how benevolent, will want to relate with Africa.

Fourthly, the 2017 French presidential election is considered quite interesting. The election is the first time in France’s Fifth Republic history that neither the Socialists nor the Republicans, two main political parties in France, do not qualify for the second round of election. For the first time, political expectations are negated and met with surprises. For the first time, the election is also held under terrorist threats as the polling booths are kept under heavy security watch. However, these factors do not remove of the other more international questions with which Franco-African relations must also address. They include the new rivalry between the quest for greater nationalism to the detriment of supranational multilateralism and globalism.

Fifthly, the silent agitations for the introduction of national currencies in the Francophone countries remain another issue. It is argued that the cfa currency is more of an obstacle rather than blessing to economic growth and development. There is also not just the allegation of discrimination  against French citizens of African origin but also the challenge of Africans dying in the Mediterranean sea while trying to cross to Europe, etc.

 What is important to note is that a new era in the political governance of France is to begin with the forthcoming run-off presidential election. In other words, the contest is monitoring-worthy and quite interesting because it not only points to the future of the place of France in the European Union but also in Franco-African relations. The two candidates have a conflicting foreign policy stand, meaning that the direction of French foreign policy can be easily discerned ab initio.

Marine Le Pen campaigned on the promises that France would be pulled out of the European Union and also from the Euro common currency. She also considered taking out France from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Already, France pulled out of the military integrative membership of the organisation in 1966. It should be remembered here that membership of the NATO is of two categories: political and military. It should also be recalled that France used to be the initial headquarters of the NATO. However, when France was no longer prepared to accept US command instructions without prior consent of the French, she opted out of the military integrative aspect but retained her political membership. The integrative and military dimension of the membership has it that an attack on any member of the NATO is considered as an attack on all other members, and, therefore requiring a collective response. In the determination of the collective response, France was hostile to Washingtonian decisions without French consent.

 Explained differently, what the French simply wanted is that the participation of French soldiers in any NATO military venture must first receive the consent of the Matignon  Government. The French government wanted to decide the modalities of its involvement. As an entente was difficult to achieve on this matter, France simply withdrew her membership of the military integration and the NATO headquarters was moved from Paris 10è to Brussels, in Belgium. The old headquarters was then converted to a university (Paris-Dauphin).

 Thus, if Marine Le Pen is talking about withdrawal from the NATO, again, it simply means the French are contemplating a total delinking with the NATO. A further implication is that in the event of an attack on France, neither the EU nor the NATO would be under obligation to provide assistance to France.

 More interesting is Le Pen’s anti-immigration policy. She wants a reduction in the number of immigrants to be allowed into France. On the eve of the first round of election, the terrorist attack in France prompted her to call for a total prohibition of immigrants. In her eyes, France is only for the French and the French are basically the French nationals and the non-immigrant French population.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Marine Le Pen wants to organise a referendum on a Frexit in the manner of Brexit. She is against the so-called ‘twin totalitarianisms’ of globalisation and Islamic fundamentalism. These policy positions are in favour of more national sovereignty which is to the detriment of supranational authority that the EU is.

Emmanuel Macron is a direct negation of the foregoing. He is an advocate of the liberalisation of the French economy. As a social liberal, he is against Brexit and what the US under Donald Trump stands for. In fact, he encouraged all those having problems under Donald Trump to come to France as a safe haven.

In terms of electoral support for the policies of the two candidates, 23.7% (approximately 24%) of the electorate supported Emmanuel Macron in the April 23rd first round of election while Marine Le Pen accounted for 21.7% (approximately 22%). In other words, the two of them accounted for 46%  while the other nine contestants shared the rest: 54%

As important as the May 7 run-off election may be, it cannot allow an accurate determination of how many French people are in support of whatever policy. What can be rightly argued is that not less than 22% of the French people are in support of Le Pen’s foreign policy and not less than 24% are also in support of that of Emmanuel Macron. Even if we reckon with the ratio of 60% for Macron and 40% for Le Pen in terms of voter support, as forecast, it simply implies that not less than 40% of the French people are anti-immigrants. How do the French people want to build or sustain international solidarity in this regard?

Without scintilla of doubt, a new era of semi-presidentialism is emerging in France. The era is likely to be largely  characterised by uncertainties derivable from the unpredictable character of both candidates. The ideological position of Macron is not clear. Le Pen whose ideological position is known has tried to delink her personality from that of that of the party by resigning as the leader of the Front National. Does this mean a new ideological re-orientation? What Africa needs now, regardless of whoever is elected as French president, is the evolvement of an African policy on France. Most unfortunately, there is none. This is the immediate challenge that has to be quickly addressed as a new Cold War is already in the making. Africa must not be cut unawares.