Macron's Africa visit reveals determination to weaken China's grip on the continent

Chanel Monteine
Key Points
  • French president Emmanuel Macron has just completed a trip to several African nations.
  • A number of education and business partnerships were announced.
  • Macron views African development as key to France's global ambition.
(From L) French president Emmanuel Macron, Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta and DR Congo president Felix Tshisekedi listen during the One Planet Summit on March 14, 2019, in Nairobi.
LUDOVIC MARIN | AFP | Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a four-day charm offensive across the Horn of Africa last week, stopping off in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The trip is largely seen as a bid to cement new ties in a region where China's influence has been growing fast.

In the first visit by a French president to Kenya since its independence in 1963, Macron concluded his trip with a bang, announcing an estimated 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) worth of deals with the East African powerhouse.

While specifics remain obscure, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta confirmed in a statement Thursday that an agreement with a "French consortium" had been reached on a series of major works to boost Kenya's transport network, including the construction of a commuter rail line linking the Kenyan capital with its central railway station.

Accompanied by some of France's corporate giants­ — including Danone, EDF, GE Alstom and Total Group — Macron's message was quite clear.

"The intent is indeed to open a new partnership in economy," Macron said in a joint press conference with Kenyatta on Wednesday. "Now what we want to do, especially with our delegation of companies, is to be part of your new growth agenda…This is how France could be a long term, credible economic partner," he added.

Both sides expressed keen intent to turn this visit into a long-term affair with cooperation spanning beyond business and including a series of environmental and educational alignments of their interests.

However, some of the local reaction was less enthusiastic. Twitter was flooded with adverse reactions to Macron's visit. One Tweet read: "People like Macron are the real stumbling blocks to the development in Africa".


Why this France-Africa push?

One clear goal for Macron is to curtail the influence of Beijing.

Macron is wooing African counterparts beyond traditional allies in non-Francophone Africa, such as Ethiopia and Kenya. This marks a significant effort to assert France's competitive edge in a region where China's grip runs deep.

"France has been competing with China across Africa now for a while", Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Director of the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, told CNBC on Thursday.

"For a lot of French companies this has meant fierce business with deals often being signed behind closed doors," added Cabestan who also acts as a member of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.

Djiboutian people hold China's national flag before the launching ceremony of a new housing contruction project in Djibouti, on July 4, 2018. The new project is financially supported by China Merchants Group.

Going from an almost non-existent engagement with the continent pre-2000s, China is now the region's largest economic partner and nation creditor.

Figures from a 2015 McKinsey report estimate China's trade with Africa stood at over $185 billion. In comparison, France's trade with the region was estimated at a significantly lower figure of $57 billion.

The same report claimed that the number of Chinese firms in Africa is two to nine times the official count.

In Kenya, China fronted an estimated $4 billion to build the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, Kenya's largest infrastructure project, while in Ethiopia the giant was the financial muscle behind the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, reportedly worth $3.4 billion.

These investments reflect how Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti have taken the lead as some of the most important partners in China's "Belt and Road" reach for global influence.

"Belt and Road" is often described as a 21st century trading route linking China to Eastern Europe and Africa. It is made up of a "belt" of overland corridors and a maritime "road" of shipping lanes.

Macron had decided early on to place Africa as a top priority, a directive he clearly gave to France's 170 ambassadors in his first foreign policy address in 2017.

"It is in Africa that the future of the world will largely play out", he boldly stated.

Macron has wasted no time in implementing his plan. He swiftly launched the first ever Presidential Council for Africa, his very own advisory squad on France-Africa relations, and actioned his charm offensive blueprint with an initial trip to West Africa in July, and now East Africa.

But aside from curtailing Chinese dominance, a closer look at the data reveals the region is growing in economic importance. In 2017, Ethiopia became France's third biggest market with French exports soaring to a record high of over 830 million euros.

The number of French companies in Kenya has almost tripled over the past five years. The likes of Peugeot, L'Oréal, Accor, Schneider Electric and Danone have all set up a regional base, reflecting Kenya's growing image as a place to do business.

Can France beat China?

At first glance, the picture for Paris is bleak. France is no match for China's deep pockets and economic might. But a closer look reveals a subtle shift in dynamics that could give Macron an upper hand.

In the first instance, it appears China's approach to doing business with Africa has quietly shifted. Breaking with a tradition of doubling up, China announced in August that it would not be expanding its financial commitment to the region. Beijing's financial pledge would instead cautiously remain at its previous level of $60 billion in 2015, perhaps a symptom of the Chinese economic slowdown.

Additionally, some African countries appear to have a greater willingness to do business with countries other than China and Macron appears to be taking advantage of that trend.

"Domestic politics is also a big factor here," Cabestan told CNBC.

Ethiopia's gradual return to democracy is creating distance with China and realigning interests with France.

BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 15: Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta as they attend the welcome ceremony at Yanqi Lake during the Belt and Road Forum May 15, 2017 in Beijing, China.
Pool | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Meanwhile, Kenya is also keen to diversify from its overt dependence on China. "Kenya, like many other countries in the region, has a big debt to China and there is certainly a willingness to rebalance their foreign relations", Cabestan said.

Seemingly playing on these dynamics, Macron made his pitch clear on arrival in Djibouti. "French companies can offer a respectful partnership…one which will not bring on excessive, unsustainable debts and favors the development of local jobs".

Macron bolstered his charm offensive with a strong soft power component. He pledged to support the development of Ethiopia's cultural heritage and several higher education partnerships, while pushing an environmental alignment with Kenya, whose energy mix is 75% renewables.

In sum, "Macron may be able to out charm China, because of his youth, his style, France's image, but France is not going to replace China", Cabestan told CNBC.

Instead France "will more actively compete with China", he added.

What now?

Macron's push in Africa reflects his drive to project France as a global power which will likely continue especially as he faces domestic challenges to his legitimacy.

Beijing will likely be using the resources at its disposal to maintain a leading position even as its partners warm up to France. How and when China will choose to flex its muscles remains to be seen.

What's certain for now though, according to Cabestan, is that as long as there is tension with Washington, "the Chinese will be playing nice with Europe", and the wider relation between the EU and China "will get more complicated".