French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday declared his country would support Africa’s need for security as he embarked on a three-nation tour aimed at renewing France’s relations with the continent.
Touching on a long-standing grievance in France‘s former African colonies, Macron also announced French archives on its colonial era in Cameroon would be opened up so that historians could “shed light” on “painful moments”.
In a speech in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, Macron promised France “will not relinquish the security of the African continent”, where a jihadist campaign in the Sahel is now shaking countries to the south.
“France remains resolutely committed to the security of the continent, acting in support and at the request of our African partners,” Macron told a gathering of French expatriates.
France is reconfiguring its posture in the Sahel after falling out with the military junta in Mali, the epicentre of a bloody 10-year-old jihadist campaign in the region.
After a pullout from Mali that is expected to be completed in the coming weeks, France’s Barkhane anti-jihadist force will have around 2,500 troops in the Sahel, just under half of the deployment at its peak, say French officers.
The force will also make a tactical shift, acting more in a support role for local forces than in taking the lead, they say.
Macron landed late on Monday on a three-day tour that will also take him to Benin and Guinea-Bissau.
He met on Tuesday with Cameroon’s 89-year-old president, Paul Biya, an iron-fisted ruler who has been in power since 1982.
In his speech, Macron said the reconfigured mission will extend “beyond the Sahel, to the Gulf of Guinea and second-layer countries which now have to face terrorist groups which are expanding and shaking up the whole region”.
The jihadist insurgency began in northern Mali in 2012 and hit neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015.
Across the region, thousands of people have been killed and more than two million have fled their homes.
Sporadic cross-border attacks have also occurred on coastal countries to the south, sparking fears of an expansion by the jihadists to the Gulf of Guinea.
Macron also pledged French support for countries fighting jihadists in the Lake Chad region, where an older insurgency launched by Nigeria’s Boko Haram is also raging.
These include Cameroon, whose Far North region, which reaches into the Lake Chad basin, has suffered repeated attacks.
Macron, at a press conference with Biya, said France’s archives on colonial rule in Cameroon would be opened “in full” and hoped historians from both countries would work together to investigate “painful moments”.
French colonial authorities brutally repressed armed Cameroonian nationalists before the country’s independence in 1960.
Macron, 44, is the first French president born after the colonial era and has repeatedly said he will turn the light on dark episodes during colonial rule.
These incidents have also fuelled a narrative by critics who say it is meddling once more in the continent under the guise of security.
Last year, France returned more than a dozen artefacts looted from Benin by colonial forces, soothing a source of friction between Paris and its former possession.
Macron’s swing through central and western Africa is his first trip to the continent since he was re-elected in April.
France has followed with concern the emergence of Russia, China and others in seeking footholds in an area it still considers part of its sphere of influence.
The tour “will show the commitment of the president in the process of renewing the relationship with the African continent”, a French presidential official, who asked not to be named, said ahead of the trip.
It will signal that the African continent is a “political priority” of his presidency, the official said.
Macron on Tuesday also hit out at “nonsense” that he said had been doing the rounds as a result of the Ukraine war.
“We are being attacked by certain people who maintain that European sanctions (against Russia) are the cause of the world food crisis, including in Africa.
“This is completely false. It’s just that food, like energy, have become Russian weapons of war,” he said.
He hit out at “the hypocrisy, particularly on the African continent” that denied the Ukraine conflict was a war.