Statement before the National Assembly by the Government on renewed partnerships between France and African countries, followed by a debate, in accordance with Article 50-1 of the Constitution – Address by Ms Catherine Colonna, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs (21 november 2023)


Deputies of the National Assembly, ladies and gentlemen,
It is important to be able to debate France’s relations with African countries in the National Assembly. These relations are a priority of our foreign policy, and so it is legitimate to fully engage with the representatives of the nation.

The questions that have been born of the successive crises in the Sahel are equally legitimate. I will come back later to our action concerning that region over the last decade, but I would first like to stress an essential point: our posture with regard to three military juntas must not overshadow the good relations, the very good relations, even, that we have with the vast majority of African countries; there are 54 of them. That would be a mistake, a grave mistake, reducing Africa, which is diverse and vast, to the Sahel alone.

I will therefore start with what is going well, that is to say the vast majority of our relations with African countries. With the constant urging of the President of the Republic, we have sought to renew our policy regarding the African continent, and that renewal is bearing fruit.

You are perhaps wondering, ladies and gentlemen, why Africa is one of the major priorities of our foreign policy. The answer stems from a simple fact: Africa is an emerging continent when it comes to the economy, to diplomacy, and of course, demography, with a population of more than 1 billion people, which is set to double by 2050 and quadruple by 2100 – perhaps representing a quarter of the global population. In the coming years, it will be increasingly important in the great global balances, in global growth, in creation and in innovation. It is also in Africa that francophonie’s future is taking shape: Africa is a continent where more than 1 million French citizens live in our regions and departments of Mayotte and La Réunion, and where 130,000 of our citizens live in sub-Saharan African countries.

We need our African partners to address the major challenges that await us for peace, security and climate change adaptation, and so it is crucial for France to forge robust, confident relations with African governments and societies. Just a few years ago, our dialogue was too much limited to regional crises affecting Africa. Today, we maintain close and demanding dialogue on all subjects of common interest, including the war in Ukraine, the climate, forests and reform of global governance. And that is exactly the spirit that prevailed in Paris in June at the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact, which was notably attended by 20 African Heads of State.

However, France is still just as committed to helping address crises on the continent, in support of regional organizations. I particularly have in mind the terrible conflicts in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where we maintain contact with both sides to facilitate a lasting peace process. And yesterday, for example, I was in contact with my counterpart in the DRC, and this morning in Rwanda, given the rising tensions in eastern DRC. France is also accompanying the process to end the crisis in Ethiopia, for example, which I visited in January with my German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock. And we can also be proud of the progress that has been made with Rwanda, thanks to sincere remembrance work and committed diplomatic engagement that have enabled us to spur on our bilateral partnerships.

Ladies and gentlemen, our diplomacy has a key goal in Africa: that France should be a credible, competitive and also attractive partner, for economic actors and for students, artists, creators and civil society as a whole. For we must say, and repeat, that our companies are competitive in Africa, and demonstrate that every day. France is now the second-largest foreign investor in Africa. In 15 years, the number of French subsidiaries in Africa has doubled, as have our investments. We are helping our start-ups, our SMEs and the diaspora’s businesspeople to invest in Africa, by financing their projects or facilitating their access to the African market. Just one example: two or three weeks ago I was in Nigeria, an immense country with more than 216 million inhabitants, which will be the third most populated country worldwide by 2050, and with which we have doubled our investments in the last decade.

I am well aware that this observation and these facts run counter to many received ideas. Conditioned responses and caricatures share a common point: they suggest that everything is going badly in Africa and that France is obviously behind. And yet we must realize that our young people, in particular, French and African, are interested in whatever will make tomorrow’s world fairer, more liveable and more sustainable, and in all the partnerships that can help that happen. They are right, and it is for them that we are working.

The reality of our policy in Africa is our desire to invest in the future, in the sectors that are most promising for tomorrow’s economy and in the vitality of the continent, which is the world’s youngest: 60% of its population is less than 25 years old. In this respect, the priority accorded to the cultural and creative industries is exemplary, ranging from comics to video games and from audiovisual production to e-sport and immersive universes. These industries bring both economic growth and individual empowerment, while renewing the limits of our imaginations. That is why they have considerable potential in Africa, where they are already seeing impressive success, and why France intends to stand as a key partner in this field. That is what we have done with the first Création Africa international forum in Paris, which brought together hundreds of the most cutting-edge French and African businesspeople in October. This year, I personally, with my Ministry, launched a €20 million fund to enable our embassies to directly support the continent’s artists and creators who want to develop their companies, both regionally and internationally. And lastly, with the upcoming Maison des Mondes Africains, we want Paris to become one of the beating hearts of African creativity.

France is also a credible partner for the continent’s emergence thanks to its inclusive investment. Since 2017, our official development assistance has been increased, as you know, from €10 to €15 billion, with more than €5 billion for Africa each year. We are now the fourth-largest global donor – we have overtaken the United Kingdom – and above all, the only country to have increased its finance for Africa last year.

We also remain very attractive for African students, which is to say, tomorrow’s elites. France is the leading destination for African students. Almost 95,000 are now studying in our universities, a considerable increase of 40% since 2017. Our embassies are doing remarkable work promoting study in France for African students, including to attract English-speakers, in addition to French-speakers. And I observed myself, during my visit to South Africa in June, that yes, we are attractive for students who are tomorrow’s elites in African countries.
France also stands resolutely alongside Africa’s democrats. That in no way means lecturing people, or interfering in the domestic affairs of African countries. It means helping committed civil society actors, like the Innovation for Democracy Foundation led by Achille Mbembe, and also all the African influencers and journalists who are fighting against disinformation, and fighting for quality information which is, as we know, a prerequisite for open and democratic societies.

Of course, I am aware of the recurrent and traditional complaints about visas. At this very moment, we are overhauling our visa policy to better address our goals of attractiveness, outreach and prevention of irregular migration, as part of the roadmap that I have shaped with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

Since the commitments made by the President of the Republic in Ouagadougou in 2017, which were reiterated at the Montpellier Summit in 2021 and again in February, in his speech at the Élysée Palace, we have been reinventing how we work with our African partners. As you know, we want to forge partnerships that are respectful and responsible, where everyone is accountable for their mutual interests. A partnership of receptiveness and dialogue. A partnership that also means breaking a few taboos, as we have done, like the taboo on the return of artefacts. A partnership in which we look our past in the face, as we have done, for example, with Rwanda and Cameroon. And lastly, a partnership which draws on our assets. I have in mind for example the role of our diasporas but also, I repeat, as we prepare to host the Francophonie Summit in 2024, the French language, which we share with millions and millions of Africans.

I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that this is the right method. We intend to follow it and we will. I am convinced of this, like the entire government, and like all our officials across the continent who are implementing this policy with determination, conviction and leadership.

But as I called a moment ago for lucidity, we must also take into account the events in three countries: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. And while they are three countries out of 54, I must stress that they are still three countries and three complex relationships, to which I would now like to return.
Over the past 10 years, France has made huge efforts militarily, financially, politically and diplomatically – even sacrificing our soldiers. The Minister for the Armed Forces will go back to that point. But before that, if I may, I would like to honour the memory of those who lost their lives and the courage of our armed forces.

We owe them a debt of gratitude.
In 2013, at the request of the authorities in Mali and countries in the region, President Hollande took the courageous decision to deploy our armed forces. Our troops fought bravely. They helped prevent Mali from becoming a terrorist State, and we can be proud of what they accomplished.

Sometimes I hear people say that we invested too much in military missions and not enough in development and diplomacy. I can categorically reject that claim. Since the reference period of 2013, we have invested hugely in developing the Sahel. Over 10 years, we provided €3.5 billion in bilateral assistance, 80% of which was in the form of donations. Between 2012 and 2022, our annual assistance for the Sahel doubled. It did not fall, it did not slightly increase, it doubled. So nobody can claim that we neglected development.

And at the same time, France undertook significant diplomatic work, including in Brussels, to convince Europeans to play their part; not all countries had the same relationship with African countries as ourselves. And we achieved concrete results with regard to assistance: over €7 billion in European assistance to the Sahel over 10 years, in addition to €3.5 billion in French assistance over the same period. In addition, a direct contribution, including militarily, was made by some European countries which up to then had not been heavily involved in Africa. For example, Estonia and the Czech Republic in Task Force Takuba, Germany in MINUSMA, and the Sahel Alliance thanks to which we brought together 27 international donors, which made unprecedented investments in the region.
This was a diplomatic effort from both Europe and the UN to create and then each year renew MINUSMA’s mandate. And at a time when, as you know, the final peacekeeping troops are leaving Mali, under extremely difficult conditions and where 310 of them have lost their lives on missions since 2013, I would like to commend the work of the United Nations Mission.

And finally, we have done our utmost to convince the Malian authorities to apply the Algiers Agreement, improve governance, and restore government services throughout the country. We said that, we repeated it, we encouraged them. But if there is one lesson to be learnt from the Sahel crisis, it is that governance is essential. External partners can help, encourage, promote, but they cannot and must not replace local authorities.

Today, the coups d’état in Mali, Burkina Faso and most recently Niger are undermining all the achievements since 2013. The security situation has worsened, there is an urgent humanitarian crisis, and there are increasing violations of freedoms. And to choose Wagner, as Mali did, is to choose predatory economic practices and war crimes. Contrary to what some would have us believe via their propaganda, these juntas are not motivated by a desire to separate from France: in truth, they want to separate from the entire international community. We must be clear-sighted about this. Starting with separation from their neighbours, regional organizations, and the United Nations. It is not so much France that is being targeted, but rather the entire international system, cooperation and values, from which these regimes are withdrawing and which they are using as scapegoats.

So it is true, ladies and gentlemen, that in the face of such regimes, we cannot continue our cooperation efforts as if nothing had changed. We cannot continue to fight terrorism alongside putschists. We cannot fund development projects which sustain them.

But naturally, we are continuing to provide humanitarian assistance so that populations do not suffer due to the behaviour of the current leaders. And contrary to what we may have read in various sources, Deputy Lecoq, we continue to cooperate with civil society, students and artists. And I want to clearly reiterate that they are still welcome in France; and above all, given our long history with these countries, we want to maintain our links with our societies, and they are coming to France.

Today, it is our responsibility to look at the big picture and see the situation for what it is: the truth is that the entire region has become unstable. And while our military withdrawal from Niger marks the end of 10 years of counter-terrorism in the Sahel, we must now completely rethink the security architecture in the region. We are working on this with the African countries, with our European partners, with the United States. But one thing is for sure, and you heard the President of the Republic, you will also hear the Minister for the Armed Forces: it is no longer up to France alone, or almost alone, to take responsibility for counter-terrorism in West Africa. The countries of the region must set a course, and their partners, including France, must support them. France will play its part, but as part of a collective framework.

Ladies and gentlemen, before I conclude, allow me to clearly reaffirm not only the importance of the relationship between France and African countries, but in particular the resources we are dedicating to realize these ambitions.

Following the Foreign Service Review, I took action to increase our staff numbers in Africa: in our chancelleries, in our communications departments, in our cultural action services. I also wanted to allocate more financial resources to the embassies, via the Team France Fund, and via the Support Fund for Cultural Entrepreneurship (FAEC), which I previously mentioned; this is effective for our Embassies to conduct visible and fast projects, which is important for our priority target groups. I also took measures to promote Africanist studies at the French Foreign Ministry, with a dedicated competitive recruitment exam which includes new language options: Fula, Hausa, Manding and Wolof. And we are also striving to further diversify recruitment within my Ministry and to attract more talent, including from our diasporas.

Finally, allow me to end with the officials who serve us. I am deeply grateful for their work. They often operate under difficult, extremely difficult, conditions. Like when our Embassies are attacked, sometimes violently attacked, as was the case in Ouagadougou and Niamey. When we must evacuate civilians, while coming under fire in the heat of battle, as we did in Khartoum. In these moments of truth, when the professionalism of our personnel is a question of life or death, because it truly is, they always showed immense courage. To serve, to serve their country, to serve our compatriots. And I want to pay tribute to their unfailing dedication, of which France can be enormously proud.

Thank you.