President Emmanuel Macron kicks off a tour of Central Africa on Wednesday in a diplomatic drive to test out a new “responsible relationship” with the continent as anti-French sentiment runs high in some former colonies.
He will first stop in Gabon for an environmental summit, before heading to Angola then the Republic of Congo – also known as Congo-Brazzaville – and finally neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Macron’s trip comes as alarm grows in Paris over Russia’s rising influence in French-speaking African countries, alongside Chinese jockeying for position, which has been visible for some years.
In Gabon, he will attend the One Forest Summit on preserving forests worldwide, including along the vast Congo River basin.
Covering 1.62 million square kilometres (more than 625,000 square miles), the forests of Central Africa represent the planet’s second-largest carbon sink after the Amazon.
They are also home to huge biodiversity including forest elephants and gorillas, and bear traces of the settlement of early humanity.
But they face threats such as poaching, deforestation for the palm oil and rubber industries, and illegal logging and mineral exploitation.
Political boost for Gabon’s president?
Macron in a speech on France’s Africa policy on Monday called for a “mutual and responsible relationship” with the continent of more than 50 countries, including on climate issues.
He reiterated a pledge to break with former post-colonial policies.
“To measure our influence through a number of military operations, to rest on exclusive privileged ties with certain leaders, or to consider that certain economic markets are rightfully ours because we were there before – these are things of the past,” he said.
But Gabonese environmental activist Marc Ona Essangui told AFP he was worried Macron’s visit would detract from the rainforest summit’s main goal of environmental conservation.
Gabonese people would instead likely view his presence as giving a political boost to President Ali Bongo Ondimba in the run-up to presidential elections later this year, he said.
“What people are registering is Emmanuel Macron coming to back his candidate,” he said.
Bongo, 64, has been president since succeeding his long-ruling father in 2009.
Macron has insisted Africa is a priority of his second term, and in July he went to Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau.
After Gabon, he heads to the former Portuguese colony of Angola as part of a drive to enhance French ties with English- and Portuguese-speaking parts of Africa.
Stopping in Congo-Brazzaville, another former French colony, he will end his trip in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo – ruled by Belgium during the colonial era – on Friday and Saturday.
Macron’s tour follows disruption in the Sahel region further north.
Paris has fallen out with new military authorities in former colonies Mali and Burkina Faso and withdrew its troops from both countries following years of helping them to battle jihadists.
France and its Western allies accuse Russian mercenary group Wagner, infamous for its activities in Syria and Ukraine, of being active in Mali and the Central African Republic, also once ruled by France.
Paris has also accused Russia of spreading disinformation to undermine French interests on the continent.
Macron on Monday said the military would reduce its footprint on the continent in the coming months, turning French outposts there into training academies or “partner” bases with more African forces.
More than 3,000 French soldiers are deployed in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Djibouti, according to official figures. Another 3,000 are in the Sahel, including in Niger and Chad.
But a French military source has said the French army is reluctant to close its bases in the region, including to stop Wagner from gaining more influence.
Analyst Elie Tenenbaum, from French international relations think tank IFRI, said implementing Macron’s plans would be complicated.
“There’s a disconnect between the vision of a president who wants to flip the table and the general staff who want to keep things as they are,” he told AFP.