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‘FrançAfrique’: Rising from its ashes?

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Delegates at the 16th Summit of the Francophonie in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

The 16th Summit of the Francophonie, organised by the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), ended in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on November 27th. During the summit, French President François Hollande had the opportunity to meet up with 30 heads of state, as well as representatives from over 80 countries, including many African nations.

Since his presidency started in 2012, François Hollande has made numerous trips to Africa, visiting more than 20 African countries over the last four years. Using a multi-pronged approach, Hollande has significantly intensified France’s engagement in Africa to stem its declining influence over the continent, causing many to wonder whether this heralds the revival of ‘FrançAfrique’.

France and Africa share a long and convoluted history that goes as far back as the early Middle Ages. Even after France gave independence to its former African colonies in the 1960s, it maintained a very close and personal relationship with Africa.

FrançAfrique, a term coined by former Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1955, was originally meant to describe the good relationship between France and Africa.

However, it has come to symbolise everything that went wrong with the French neocolonial relationship that meant keeping its former colonies in Africa on a tight leash, shown in political interference and protecting France’s political and economic interests: organised coups to remove African leaders who attempted to go rogue; covert military interventions to secure natural resources; and corruption and illicit outflows.

According to Eurostat, in 2014 trade between the 28 countries in the European Union and Africa was slightly more than €300bn. Oil and gas imports from Africa, mainly from Algeria, Nigeria and Libya, represent 20% of the total energy imports of the EU28 countries.

At €90bn, France, by itself, represented 30% of the EU28-Africa trade. The top three trade partners of France in Africa are the Maghreb countries, which are also its former colonies: Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

These three countries represent about half of France-Africa trade. Of Algeria’s exports, 96% are in oil and gas. Europe and France represent 63% and 10% respectively of Algerian exports. Besides energy and natural resources, Africa is of strategic importance to France and the European Union, since it represents about 6% and 9% of their respective global trades.

According to the World Bank, the average economic growth of Africa is 4.4% over the last 16 years, while France grew on average at 1.3%. Moreover, during that period of time, developing countries like Brazil, China, India and Russia grew at an average rate of 2.9%, 9.5%, 7.0% and 4.1% respectively. These fast-growing developing countries, including those in Africa, are outperforming the average global growth rate of 2.9%.

Furthermore, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the gross domestic product (GDP) of emerging market and developing economies, based on purchasing power parity (PPP), represents a significant 58.1% of the world economy. Hence, developed countries, like France, cannot afford to ignore the economic potential of developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, France’s growth rate has stagnated at an average of 0.4%, while Africa grew at an average of 4.1% during the last 8 years. Moreover, with the growing economic influence of Asian countries like China, France is seeing its political and economic influence over Africa dwindle, so much so that many African leaders, even those from the francophone region, prefer to go to Beijing looking for economic assistance, rather than to Paris.

In addition, over the last decade, China-Africa trade has steadily increased and eventually far exceeded the France-Africa trade. China even has significant trade relationships right in the backyard of France, trading about US$16bn with Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia in 2014.

Facing a stagnating economy and a double-digit unemployment rate in France, President Hollande announced a new African economic strategy in 2013, aimed at doubling its trade activities, while also doubling its aid for Africa to €20nbn until 2018. Increasing trade with Africa is primarily meant to stimulate and spur job creation, economic growth and investment in France.

As a result, France has intensified its bilateral and multilateral engagement with Africa through its international agencies, including the Agence Française de Développement (AFP) and the OIF as well as regular events like the Africa-France Summit.

Since its inception in 1973, the Africa-France Summit has been held 26 times, with the last one held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2013. The 27th edition will be held in Bamako, Mali, this coming January 2017.

The OIF currently encompasses more than 80 countries seen to embrace the French language and culture. Of the more than 80 countries, 31 out of the 54 African countries are part of the OIF. Moreover, Africa has the biggest francophone community in the world, with more than 120 million French-speaking people, representing about 55% of the global francophone community.

Besides Michaëlle Jean, the current secretary general of the OIF, who is Canadian, the two previous secretary generals are from Africa. The first secretary general of the OIF was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former Egyptian foreign minister and former secretary general of the United Nations. Subsequently, Abdou Diouf, the former president of Senegal, held the helm of OIF for 11 years. President Hollande attended the 2012 and 2014 OIF Summits, held in Kinshasa, Congo and Dakar, Senegal respectively.

Hence, through the African francophone community and through agencies like AFD and OIF, as well as events like Africa-France Summit, France exerts significant leverage and influence over the francophone region, as well as the greater Africa.

France also has significant economic control over 14 former colonies in Western and Central Africa through the currency CFA franc. This originally meant ‘franc des Colonies Françaises d’Afrique’ (franc of French Colonies of Africa), but has subsequently been renamed ‘franc de la Communauté Financière d’Afrique’ (franc of the African Financial Community).

The CFA franc was pegged to the French franc and now is pegged to the euro, at a rate of 656 CFA franc to the euro. Through the CFA franc, the Banque de France – the central bank of France – directly controls 50% of the currency reserves of these 14 countries. This amounts to about $20bn, yielding a tiny interest of 0.75%. This fund could have been put to better use for the development of these 14 countries, if they had not been tied up with the CFA franc.

Last but not least, France has a huge and influential network of businessmen, as well as French multinationals, operating in Africa. For instance, French oil major Total is not only present in most African countries, but a significant amount of its oil production also comes from Africa.

Bolloré Group is present in 46 African countries and is the number one port operator in Africa, controlling 16 major ports in West Africa – from Port de Nouakchott in Mauritania down to Port de Pointe Noire in Congo. Moreover, the Bolloré Group has significant control over land and sea transport and logistics operations all over the continent. French industrial group Bouygues is present in 19 African countries, mainly for construction and infrastructure development. As for the French telecommunication multinational Orange, it is present in 21 countries, with more than 80 million subscribers.

In December 1993, Houphouët-Boigny, considered as the father of FrançAfrique, passed away. In October 2012, President François Hollande declared in Dakar, Senegal: “Le temps de la FrançAfrique est révolu: il y a la France et il y a l’Afrique” (FrançAfrique is over: there is France and there is Africa). Despite these events, it is not seem to be the end of FrançAfrique.

Indeed, with the rise of other developing countries, Africa has now more choices of who to partner with, but France will definitely not let go of its political and economic grip on the continent. Through all these webs of influence, built over centuries, FrançAfrique is just undergoing a major transformation, that will lead to a new form of partnership in the future.

In conclusion, there is only one thing left to say: “La FrançAfrique est morte, vive la FrançAfrique!” (FrançAfrique is dead, long live FrançAfrique!)

The author, Richard Li, is a partner of Steel Advisory Partners, Singapore. This article was written specifically for NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation.

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