PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to reduce the number of French troops in Africa under a “new security partnership” with the concerned nations and to roll out more ambitious economic policies, in a bid to boost France’s waning influence in the continent.
Macron called for opening a “new era” in a speech at the Elysee presidential palace, ahead of an ambitious trip on Wednesday to Gabon, Angola, the Republic of Congo and Congo.
He said France must move away from interfering in parts of Africa that it once ruled as a colonial power, saying the continent is no longer its “back yard.”
“There’s another path,” he said: “Addressing African countries as partners with whom we share interests and balanced, reciprocal, accountable responsibilities.”
He promised a “new security partnership” with reduced numbers of French troops on the continent.
Macron said French military bases won’t be closed, but will be transformed based on needs expressed by African partners.
“Our model must not be anymore military bases like those we have now,” he said. “Tomorrow, our (military) presence will go through bases, schools, academies, which will be jointly managed” by French and African staff.
“And I say it very clearly: France’s role is not to fix all problems in Africa,” he added.
Monday’s speech came at a time when France’s influence on the continent is facing its biggest challenges in decades. Growing anti-French sentiment has led to street protests in several West and North African countries.
In addition, historical economic ties that France had with the region are under pressure from the growing commercial presence of Russia, China and Turkey.
Macron acknowledged that Africa now is a “field of competition” and urged French businesses to “wake up” and get involved in the fight.
In the past year, French troops had to withdraw from Mali, which turned instead to private Russian military contractors of the Wagner group, and most recently from Burkina Faso, which also appears to increasingly look towards Moscow.
Macron denounced Wagner as “criminal mercenaries” whose role is to “protect faltering and putschist regimes.” He accused them of “predating” on natural resources and “committing violence against (local) populations” including rapes.
Last year, Macron announced the formal end of the so-called Barkhane military force after France withdrew its troops from Mali. French operations to help fight Islamic extremists in the Sahel region are now focusing mostly on Niger and Chad, where the country still has about 3,000 troops.
In Burkina Faso, Boubacari Dicko, the emir — or traditional chief — of the northern city of Djibo near the Malian border, said a renewed relationship between France and African countries could be based on a win-win partnership.
“Change is good” and “necessary” because French policies in recent years have been criticized for failing to restore security in the region, he said, adding: “The French army was here, but that didn’t prevent the jihadists from entering the country and expanding in the country every day.”
Macron, 45, is the first French president born after the end of colonial era. He has previously sought to extend France’s cooperation with English-speaking countries, such as Ghana and Kenya, and increase French investments in Africa’s private sector.
During this week’s tour, he will also visit Portuguese-speaking Angola, with an aim to develop links especially in agriculture and food industry, and energy, including oil and gas.
Yet Macron’s trip to central Africa already faces questions.
Some opposition activists in Gabon have denounced his visit, which they perceive as offering support to President Ali Bongo Ondimba — whose family has ruled since the 1960s — ahead of a presidential election later this year.
Similar questions have been raised in Congo, which faces a December presidential election.
Macron’s office said all French officials will remain neutral regarding these elections.
The Elysee stressed that Macron is traveling to Gabon mainly to attend a major climate-related summit on the preservation of forests.
He will also seek to show France’s commitment to improving economic and cultural relations with two French-speaking countries — neighbors Republic of Congo and Congo — through talks with authorities as well as with ordinary citizens, entrepreneurs, artists and activists, according to the Elysee.
Macron denounced Monday the offensive in east Congo by the M23 rebel group linked with neighboring Rwanda as an “unacceptable regression.” Fighting intensified in recent days, with “terrible consequences” for the population, Macron said. “The unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Congo cannot be called into question,” he said.
AP Writer Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, contributed to this story.