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Eritrea for mobile viewing Macron bad-mouthing China during East Africa trip shows an outdated mind-set

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Date: Wednesday, 20 March 2019

By Laetitia Tran Ngoc

Published: 2019/3/19 18:23:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

French President Emmanuel Macron recently paid a four-day state visit to Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. Macron's tour was aimed at deepening France's economic and political ties in East Africa at a time when the region is undergoing rapid and profound changes. 

France's reaching out to Ethiopia and Kenya showed a change in Paris' approach to Africa. France seems to be courting countries which do not belong within its sphere of influence and yet are among the continent's most populous and fastest-growing economies.

However, such laudable evolution was overshadowed by Macron's criticism of China's deepening reach in Africa. During his stop in Djibouti, a former French colony, Macron warned that Chinese investments could endanger African sovereignty or weaken domestic economies while China's regional presence could produce harmful results in the long run. 

The remarks follow other warnings by Western leaders about China's supposedly nefarious intentions in Africa. Last year, former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson raised an alarm for Africans to be wary of Chinese predatory investments. In March 2017, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani warned that Africa risked "becoming a Chinese colony." Repeatedly, China is placed in the background of Western initiatives in Africa, as if the continent was without value to itself, or that African leaders were unable to make assessments of their relationship with China on their own.

This needless bad-mouthing of China is all the more regrettable as France's initiatives were both well-thought out and welcomed. Take Ethiopia for example, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has presided over major privatization changes in critical economic sectors since coming into power in April 2018. 

In the wake of Macron's visit, France announced it would help Ethiopia develop its navy, restore the historic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and provide $113 million to boost economic growth. French Soufflet Group, France's top private cereal collector, also placed the cornerstone of its first malt factory in Africa, a project that will create 300 jobs and utilize 40,000 farmers. The following deals were in line with Ethiopia's policy objectives and could help France wield greater regional influence.

This is what a mutually beneficial relationship between France and Africa could look like. Paris was not engaging in charity work by supporting Ethiopia, but rather trying to develop a commercial exchange with a country that provided France with its largest trade surplus in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017. In Addis Ababa, Macron was accompanied by a delegation of entrepreneurs, looking for opportunities in a country whose annual growth rate is close to 8 percent.

This superfluous debate over China's presence in Africa is the result of outdated views that mandate all developing nations should choose sides and belong solely to exclusive clubs. This betrays an old Cold War perspective.

Most African countries have since adopted a pragmatic development approach. China was first and foremost welcome because it provided African countries with what they needed, not because of an ideological rejection of former colonial powers. 

Accusations that China is taking over or colonizing Africa have ignored the fact that African countries have not turned their back on Western countries, but rather the opposite. Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who had criticized France in 2015 for abandoning his country and investing very little in it, welcomed Macron's visit with open arms, calling upon French companies to invest in its new international Djibouti Free Trade Zone.

What remains to be seen is whether France's efforts will increase and stabilize over time. French diplomacy in Africa lags far behind China's efforts, as Chinese leaders have made it a point to take official trips to Africa once in office. Not since 2013 has a French head of state visited Ethiopia. Macron's Kenya visit marked the first by a French president since the country's independence in 1963. 

During his first foreign policy address in 2017, Macron announced his plans to place Africa at the heart of his foreign policy. Macron's visits to African nations since then, including non-French-speaking countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya, prove that the European country is willing to reach beyond its traditional backyard in Africa. It is unfortunate the French president resorted to Western countries' paternalistic habit of telling their so-called African partners what to do.

*The author is a research officer with the Ethiopian Embassy in Belgium.
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