By John Irish
DJIBOUTI/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday sought to reassert the importance of France in its former colony Djibouti with Paris increasingly fearing China’s muscular role in Africa as it expands economic and military influence across the continent.
Djibouti, strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal, hosts France’s largest naval base on the continent and is home to some 1,400 personnel used to train African troops as well as to monitor the Horn of Africa and Yemen.
While it was seen as a vital outpost in the past, French administrations have disregarded it in recent years with Macron only the second French leader to visit the East African country in the last 20 years.
“France considered Djibouti for too long to be a territory that was won,” said a senior French diplomat based in the region. “But now the competition from China is fierce.”
Those comments echoed President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s public criticism in 2015 accusing France – from which it gained independence in 1977 – of abandoning Djibouti and investing very little.
Djibouti also hosts a U.S. military base used as a launch pad for operations in Yemen and Somalia, but in 2013, China opened its largest overseas military base in the country rivalling Paris and Washington directly.
In recent years, Beijing has provided economic aid, developed industrial production in the country and invested massively in high-profile public infrastructure projects, including restoring a French-made railway from 1917 linking Djibouti to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.
With a population of less than a million, it also handles 95 percent of the goods imported by Ethiopia, its landlocked neighbour with 100 million people.
“Strategically we need to strengthen the French presence threefold: economically, culturally and militarily,” Marielle de Sarnez, the head of France’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said after being dispatched by Macron last May. “It’s urgent. Otherwise we will lose ground.”
The unexpected peace accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018 has also reshuffled the cards for Djibouti.
The lifting of the United Nations Security Council’s arms embargo on Eritrea and other sanctions in November sparked Djibouti’s ire. It accuses Eritrea of occupying part of its territory and holding 13 Djiboutian soldiers.
French officials say they have raised this at the U.N. and see it as a way for Paris to assert its diplomatic influence in the region.
“What the Djiboutian authorities are expecting from us is that we remain active so that Djibouti fully has its place in the recomposition of the region,” a French presidential source said.
(Additional reporting by Reuters TV, editing by G Crosse)