23 October 2018
Emmanuel Macron's denunciation of France's colonial past in Algeria has won him many admirers in West and North Africa. Photo: Reuters
Emmanuel Macron's denunciation of France's colonial past in Algeria has won him many admirers in West and North Africa. Photo: Reuters

How Macron has won the hearts and minds of Africans

Ever since he assumed office, US President Donald Trump has been crowing about how he is going to “make America great again”, echoing the rhetoric of his election campaign.

However, rather ironically, his isolationist approach to diplomacy and his protectionist stance on trade have actually begun help other powers, rather than America, become “great again”.

Apart from Russia and China, which are taking advantage of the power vacuum left behind by the US in regions like Central Asia and are scrambling aggressively for regional leadership, France, once the second largest colonial power in the world after the British Empire, is flexing diplomatic muscles in West Africa, its former sphere of influence.

Of course, France’s diplomatic approach to the region is no longer that of a conventional colonial power. Instead, Paris is currently focused on facilitating multilateral cooperation and development in the area under its leadership.

During the recent G20 summit, French President Emmanuel Macron called upon the international community to pay more attention to the social and economic development of Africa, particularly the western part of the continent.

And Paris not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk in expanding its influence in the region. For instance, it recently spearheaded the formation of a joint anti-insurgent task force which is mainly made up of soldiers from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, all of which are former French colonies.

Known as the “Sahel Task Force”, the coalition army will join the French expeditionary force to carry out anti-terrorist and counter-insurgent operations in West Africa.

The formation of the Sahel Task Force was in fact France’s most ambitious and pro-active diplomatic move in Africa in recent years since its deployment of troops to Mali back in 2012.

Meanwhile, this year marks the 55th anniversary of the independence of Algeria, and Macron’s stance on the country and its unpleasant colonial past has stirred up quite a controversy in France.

Algeria, once regarded by Paris as an “indispensable part” of its empire, was French colony between 1830 and 1962, during which hundreds of thousands of French and other Europeans emigrated to the country. By 1950s there were over a million European settlers in Algeria.

However, like all other former colonies of western powers, nationalism swept across Algeria in the wake of the Second World War, eventually leading to its 8-year-long war of independence that began in 1954.

The war soon turned out to be a brutal conflict, with the Front de Libération Nationale, or the FLN, formed by Algerian nationalists fighting against a 400,000-strong French expeditionary force, which consisted of not only French soldiers but also a large number of pro-France muslims known as the Harkis.

The Algerian War of Independence has been notorious for its brutality and rampant war crimes were committed by both sides, with total war deaths amounting to over 500,000, the overwhelming majority of whom being Algerian civilians.

After 8 years of bloody conflict, the FLN eventually defeated the French forces and gained independence. Immediately after the war the FLN mounted a nationwide hunt for traitors and enemy collaborators.

As a result, tens of thousands of Harkis who had fought alongside the French during the war were rounded up and massacred, while as many as 90,000 of them fled to southern France to seek political asylum.

For decades both the French government and the French public have rarely reflected on their former colonial rule in Algeria, let alone apologized for the war crimes they committed during the Algerian War. Moreover, over the years the French Right has remained highly hostile to Algerian immigrants and never regarded them as French people.

However, it appears President Macron is determined to deal with that dishonorable chapter in the history of France head-on. For example, during his election campaign Macron paid a visit to Algeria, where in a public speech he referred to colonial rule as “a crime against humanity”.

Yet, while the Algerians highly praised Macron for his courage in speaking his mind, his stance on French colonial rule in Algeria has upset a lot of French people back home, indicating that even to this day, France’s role in Algeria’s colonial past remains a taboo subject among French society.

While his pro-Algeria rhetoric has upset many of his countrymen, Macron has become highly popular in West and North Africa. If the United States’ strategic retreat in Africa continues, Paris is very likely to replace Washington as the regional hegemon in Africa in the days ahead.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 19

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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