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Economic relations between France and Africa in the face of geopolitical and geoeconomic issues –

France’s African policy has focused, over the past decades, on various themes and sectors with one objective: to make the French offer in Africa competitive. But why did we come to this when everything seemed to be in place since African independence, from the point of view of French rulers, to control internal political processes and endogenous economic dynamics?

Two explanatory factors seem relevant in an attempt to understand the different polarizations and fragmentations that have led to the loss of attractiveness and influence of the French offer in Africa. The first factor is certainly linked to the historical sociology of politics, which explains how France’s foreign policy in Africa has not known, wanted or been able to integrate control of the historicity of African societies, at least since the State formation process up to their insertion into the international system. The second factor, which is indisputably a continuation of the first, can be eminently strategic. French creativity in terms of foreign policy has not shown itself to be up to the great strategic challenges and the geopolitical and geoeconomic transformations taking place on the continent. During the thirty or forty years that followed African independence, the French military tool was the only effective pillar to ensure its political and economic interests in Africa. But this effectiveness has remained relative given the flagrant contradictions that have undermined the requirement for consistency in foreign policy. Faced with the loss of significant market shares and, in general, of its influence in Africa, France is trying to set up an economic catch-up diplomacy which is coming up against unprecedented geopolitical and geoeconomic competition.

Renewal of approaches and weak transformation of practices

For Frédéric Charillon, “foreign policy remains the instrument by which the state tries to shape its international political environment, but it is no longer just a matter of relations between governments […] It often consists of reacting or adapting to external events over which the decision-makers have no control” (1). This precaution or prescription of a strategic order seems to have been lacking in France in its relations with Africa. Many experts, some conservatives, others so-called realists or both, believe that the initial model of influence projection based on the “Pax Gallica” and inherited from colonization made it possible to maintain strategic influence considerable on the African continent and wish to return to this initial model. The latter consisted in supporting the regimes “friends of France” without any other form of conditionality than geopolitical “loyalty” (2). As Laurent Bansept and Elie Tenenbaum point out, this model “also took advantage of a comprehensive security and economic cooperation system and a context of measured strategic competition” (3). If this strategy enabled France to secure its political interests, it was not effective in confirming its economic advantage over the other powers. On a continental scale, this strategy has not failed to deepen, in several countries, the democratic deficit and the obstacles to state sovereignty. A situation which partly caused the development of a widely shared anti-French sentiment in French-speaking countries. These obstacles have been the basis of the diversification of economic partnerships on the continent with new competitors who have not failed to offer alternative solutions to the development of trade and investment in Africa.

Over the past three decades, a desire to gradually transform this model has been implemented. But this transformation took place with the introduction of a democratic conditionality which has always been applied with variable geometry. Not only is the issue of the effectiveness of conditionality the subject of debate, whether within the Court of Auditors of the European Union or at the International Monetary Fund, but this mechanism has rather produced a headwind on the continent. The principle of conditionality proved to be ineffective at a time when an alternative was taking shape on the continent with the entry into economic and commercial competition of powers such as China, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc. The latter have operated an unprecedented economic pragmatism on the continent while remaining consistent with their foreign policy doctrines. The immediate consequence of this imprudent reading in the evolution of exchanges between France and Africa was nothing other than the triple strategic, economic and cultural downgrading of France.

Trade: developments and diversification strategies

Faced with France’s loss of influence in Africa and the shrinking of its market shares (4), the government has undertaken, in recent years, to revitalize its trade policy for the continent. The strategy is relatively clear: sixty years after independence, it is urgent to go beyond the traditional conception of aid to construct that of investment for development. In the report by Hervé Gaymard addressed to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs in April 2019, it is clearly specified that the ambition to relaunch the French economic presence in Africa must not be a collective ambition but must be carried by Public powers (5). According to this report, one of the urgent matters is the reconstruction in ten years of a French tool of world-class technical expertise, similar to that available in Germany. Such initiatives at the end of the 2010s show the extent to which France’s African policy, which was implemented over many decades, was designed on the basis of a relatively limited rationality. The new strategy which aims to integrate commercial diplomacy into France’s foreign policy doctrine, by having private actors play a more offensive role, seems to be relevant. But its long-term effectiveness will depend, on the one hand, on France’s macroeconomic performance nationally and internationally, and, on the other hand, on the competitiveness and adaptability of the French offer in Africa. . For the time being, the economic catch-up strategy is contributing to multiplying the instruments of assistance to the private sector and to encouraging the penetration of African markets by French companies.

For the year 2021, we note for example an increase in trade between France and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) of 10% compared to 2020, to 4.6 billion euros. According to the Treasury Department, French exports to countries in the area increased by 10.8% to 3.4 billion euros, two-thirds of these exports being destined for Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. . As a reminder, Côte d’Ivoire remains France’s leading customer in WAEMU (second in sub-Saharan Africa), ahead of Senegal, while products from the agri-food and pharmaceutical industries remain France’s leading sales item to the ‘Union. French imports from the area also recorded an increase of 7.5% to 1.1 billion euros. 73% of these imports come from Côte d’Ivoire (third largest supplier in sub-Saharan Africa) and mainly consist of products from the agricultural and agri-food industries. Thus, France saw its trade surplus increase (+12.6%) to settle at 2.3 billion euros at the regional level, 32% of which came from the trade balance with Senegal (6).

France jostled in Africa

According to many observers, France’s largest African customers in terms of value, in 2019, are in North Africa. Algeria recorded 4.9 billion euros in purchases, Morocco 4.75 billion, 3.3 billion for Tunisia and 2.3 billion for Egypt. South Africa, which does not belong to this geographical area, is also one of the largest customers with a record bill of 5.2 billion euros (7).
As far as French purchases are concerned, North Africa retains the top spot with Morocco (5.5 billion euros), Tunisia (4.5 billion) and Algeria (4.2 billion). Right after these North African countries come countries like Nigeria (3.7 billion), Libya (1.4 billion) and South Africa (1.3 billion) (8).

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