Macron's visit to Africa: Who has more influence on the continent? France, clans and Wagner

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By Alexander Kazakevich
French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he gives a speech to ouline France's revamped strategy for Africa ahead of his visit in Central Africa, at the Elysee in Paris
French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he gives a speech to ouline France's revamped strategy for Africa ahead of his visit in Central Africa, at the Elysee in Paris   -  Copyright  STEFANO RELLANDINI / POOL / AFP

In 2017, in a keynote speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso was made on French policy towards Africa by French President Emmanuel Macron. He declared that the era where Paris "patronised" former colonies was finally over and that a new relationship must be built not on the mould of an outdated system of influence, but on the basis of a new generation of Africans.

Another attempt to present a "new deal" took place at the Elysée Palace on Monday, two days before the start of his presidential tour of Central Africa. The head of the Fifth Republic proposed, among other things, a noticeable reduction in the number of French soldiers on the continent and a move towards a model of "joint management" of military bases with African countries.

Macron’s new “pragmatic” formula involves security policy, which has recently been a headache for Paris (in Mali, Central African Republic and Burkina Faso), and more emphasis on business."

France must recognise that it has interests in Africa," Macron said, adding that it must set them aside by "showing the utmost respect" for its partners.

New Politics with Old Heroes

The French leader's plane landed in Libreville on Wednesday, where he will take part in the "One Forest Summit", a summit where the Elysée says it will discuss "concrete solutions" to save the Gabonese forest, the second largest rainforest on the planet after the Amazon. In addition to its rich biodiversity, Gabon is also home to the French military. It is home to one of four permanent French bases on the continent. Meanwhile, the country has been ruled by the Bongo clan for 56 years.

According to Thierry Virkulon, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), Central Africa is "the least democratic part of the continent".

Democracy is out of the question in this region. No one expects regimes to change here.
Thierry Vircoulon
Consultant, expert at the French Institute of International Relations

After Gabon, Macron will travel to neighbouring Angola, Congo Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter suffers from internal strife, with conflict with neighbouring Rwanda at the countries’ border.

The Human Rights League and three dozen other NGOs have called on Emmanuel Macron to devote his visit to Kinshasa "to the respect of human rights and democracy". This is also appropriate for Congo-Brazzaville: Emmanuel Macron was two years old when Denis Sassou Nguesso first came to power in the republic.

Portuguese-speaking Angola, dependent on foreign investors, does not have a colonial history with France, but according to Thierry Wirkulon it is little different politically from other countries in the region: "Angola is in the same situation: the ruling party has been in power uninterruptedly since independence in 1975. Presidents have changed, but the same party has remained in power. Everyone knows that democracy is not on the agenda in this region.

A "Promising Market" for the Wagner Group

In France’s absence, close ties with these countries have significantly dropped. Last August, French servicemen were replaced by mercenaries from the Wagner Group in Mali, where France was conducting an anti-jihadist operation Barkhan.

The French contingent will also soon leave Burkina Faso. Thierry Virkulon does not rule out an attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin to penetrate into Burkina Faso and use it as a "logistical platform". This is stated in the report "The Grey Zone: Presence of Russian military, mercenaries and criminals", published by the NGO Global Initiative.

Most noteworthy is the speed with which Eugene Prigozhin's structures are spreading into Africa: his holding first set foot on the continent in 2017 and has now established itself in many countries.
Thierry Vircoulon
Consultant, expert at the French Institute of International Relations

"It's a promising market," says the expert, "many governments are in a difficult security situation and are looking for protection from the outside.

Will Russia's Influence prove short-lived?

Despite the rapid expansion, Russian PMCs seem to be "ineffective" to Thierry Virkulon: "The Wagners are capable of stabilising the situation at best, but they cannot reverse the conflict and create a new dynamic.

That said, the Chinese presence in Africa is limited to the economic sphere, and this is what guarantees Beijing sustained influence.

"China has been investing in Africa for 20 years, that is, since the beginning of the century," says Thierry Virkulon. This sets it apart from Russia, which has only recently emerged. After the collapse of the USSR, it did not even think about Africa as an economic opportunity.