With the golden winter sun tilted over the palm trees and yellow sandstone, the scene was perfect. Emmanuel Macron and his host, Cyril Ramaphosa, from South Africa, walked the red carpet of Union buildings in Pretoria as the Marseillaise echoed in the crisp, crisp air.
The historic setting was adequate. Since coming to power in 2017, the French president has called for a major reset of the national strategy, relations and intervention in Africa. He chose a very contemporary way of doing it: by re-examining the past.
In Africa, he is not the only one who considers history to be important. Last week, Germany agreed to pay Namibia 1.1 billion euros (£ 940million) as it officially acknowledged the killing by its settlers of tens of thousands of the Herero and Nama peoples at the start of the twentieth century – a gesture of reconciliation, but not of legally binding reparations, for what Berlin now recognizes was “genocide”.
Others also view the continent’s history as critical – and useful – today. China, which has made a major effort to expand its influence across Africa, systematically sheds light on the bloody past of Western colonial powers on the continent. Russia has consciously invoked the Cold War relationships and myths, telling countries like Angola that the old ties are tightly knit.
Britain has tried to invoke imperial history across the Commonwealth, in the somewhat optimistic belief that the rulers and citizens of the former colonies will fondly remember decades of exploitative and sometimes brutal rule. So far, this seems to have had little success. Early efforts to restore Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth failed and the government of the struggling former British colony recently unveiled a statue in the center of the capital, Harare, of a revered spiritual leader who has resisted subjugation by Cecil Rhodes and his British company from South Africa.
“It is true that France has a history in Africa which is complex”, declared Hervé Berville, French deputy who accompanied Macron. “Sometimes happiness, family, a wealth of cultural and other exchanges, but more complex, deeper, heavier too. And we must recognize our misdeeds, our mistakes… It is not a question of self-flagellating but simply of being honest with ourselves and the others who lived the consequences of our actions.
On Thursday, the French president spent a day in Rwanda, a former Belgian colony whose government has long accused France of complicity in the murder of around 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, in 1994.
In Kigali, Macron asked for forgiveness and explained how the French bore a terrible responsibility after supporting a genocidal regime for far too long – although he said he had the best of intentions. The speech was based on the findings of a French report by historians and archivists with unprecedented access to key French government archives. Although not an apology, Macron’s words were enough to satisfy Paul Kagame, in power in Rwanda for 27 years and one of the most influential leaders on the continent.
“By recognizing the mistakes of our past [in Africa], we can better prepare our future there, ”said Berville, an orphan evacuated by the French army from Rwanda who grew up in France. Another advantage is to prevent the efforts of competitors such as Russia or China to “instrument and exploit” this story.
A similar historical investigation investigated atrocities committed by French authorities, police and troops in Algeria during the colonial period and the bloody war of independence there. Then there are steps to repatriate at least part of the works of French museums that have been looted from Africa.
Mohamed Diatta, analyst at the ISS in Pretoria, said Macron had been inconsistent but seemed to have recognized the importance of the past in opening up new opportunities for dialogue with the young African population.
“There is a bit of movement and it’s encouraging. France’s ultimate guiding principle is the protection and promotion of its own interests, this is not going to change, but the way they do things can change, ”said Diatta. “France’s relationship with Africa… cannot be separated from the way France treats its colonial past in France itself; how France treats its immigrant population of African descent in France. There is this past that needs to be dealt with appropriately.
But some aspects of the past can also be usefully ignored. Macron’s new strategy sees the continent as an immensely varied whole, not divided by old empires or languages, with opportunities for political or economic advantages well outside the traditional “FrançAfrique”. Analysts point out that South Africa, a former British imperial dominion where English is the main language of business and administration, is not a traditional partner of Paris.
“France recognizes that there is an advantage in the non-French speaking regions of Africa which do not have the blockages and suspicions of FrançAfrique and is therefore making a greater push there”, declared Alex Vines, director. of the Africa program at Chatham Loger. “There are historic ties to the former colonies, but that’s not where his companies are making money and making inroads. “
Critics point out that there are many things that still seem familiar in French interventions. Security, arms sales and resource exploitation are always at the forefront. Last month, Macron attended the funeral of Idriss Déby, the authoritarian veteran leader of Chad and a key French ally for decades, to convey to local rebels that Déby’s son and unelected successor was the protege of France. Then there is the bloody intervention in Mali, where French troops have tried for a decade to help local forces suppress Islamist extremism without success.
In South Africa, such reminders of the priorities of the not too distant past were distant, symbolically as well as physically. Instead, Macron focused on winning hearts, minds and contracts with offers of aid, support for vaccine production in Africa and streamlined business links.
“There will always be some who say it’s too little, too late,” said Berville, speaking hours before his flight with the president back to Paris on Saturday. “But there is a whole generation in Africa that wants to transform relations with France. In politics, you have to be sensitive to reality.