France seems intent on using its Council of the European Union presidency to tighten its slipping grip on Africa and to catalyze increased European integration.
As the world's bread basket, Africa has long fed the coffers of French industry, from defense to natural resources. Paris has traditionally considered itself to be a privileged partner of the continent, and particularly of its former colonies. With France itself being relatively resource poor, the relationships are considered critical to France's own sovereignty. If France can call the shots with its African partners, then it doesn't need to hunt for resources on less friendly grounds over which it has much less leverage and control. And now it also gets to call the shots for Europe - at least temporarily. And Macron certainly isn't going to let that opportunity go to waste.
So when Macron took over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on January 1, 2022, he turned his sights straight to Africa. The first event organized by the French government in this role was a meeting on identifying the priorities for EU members in their relationship with the African Union ahead of a February summit between the two. During a press conference on January 11, Macron said that he wants Europe to be "stronger in the world" and to "to build a new alliance, to rebuild our European Union-African Union partnership."
While Macron may wax poetic in public about investing in "green infrastructures" and "supporting prosperity and peace" in Africa, one can catch a glimpse of another agenda behind his platitudes.
Macron has long had a dream of greater European integration, of which one of the cornerstones is his dream of a 'European defense'. The notion fits with Macron's vision of Europe that mirrors and extends the position of former French General and President Charles de Gaulle of France as a geopolitical power capable of serving as a broker between the Russian and American geopolitical power poles. And Africa provides the perfect backdrop of conflict and proximity to Europe to serve as a pretext for showcasing this new European army concept.
But, as usual, the devil is in the details. For instance, which other European countries actually have armies that could make a legitimate contribution to a pan-European force or mission? Greece? Italy? Poland? (Forget about Germany, which has been reluctant to go all-in with France to the potential upset of US-led NATO, which provides Berlin with a nuclear umbrella.)
Now cross reference any such candidates with a desire to intervene overseas, particularly in missions with a return on investment that will ultimately pale in comparison to what France would gain when it inevitably muscles out foreign industrial competitors, as military missions under counterterrorist or humanitarian pretext ultimately give way to economic footholds.
It's also doubtful that Italian, Polish, Greek, or other EU nations' citizens would back greater foreign military involvement in the Sahel region of Africa, about which Macron had been pounding the desk, making it clear that it's essentially a French-led mission with window dressing. And therein lies a quintessential paradox of national sovereignty and European sovereignty. Is it even possible to strengthen Europe without weakening its individual member states by forcing them to answer to supranational leadership which may not be fully aligned with national interests?
Further complicating Macron's African ambitions for France and his EU showcase project is the fact that France has made a series of unforced errors on the continent that have resulted in competitors like China, Russia, and the US stealing Paris' lunch.
The latest example was Macron's acceptance of Washington's "help" in Africa as a consolation prize for robbing France in Australia when a multi-billion euro submarine deal was suddenly canceled and awarded to Washington. Come on - every guy knows that if you want to steal your buddy's girl, you ask if you can hang out with them. What does Macron think that Washington's interest really is in asking to hang out with Paris on missions in Africa? The French cooking?
There's also the fact that the old strategy of spearheading interventions in Africa with a military or national security impetus - dialing up conflicts or backing coups - while hoping for a transition to an eventual economic return and industrialization is no longer a viable model for success, if only because the public is onto the con. It has since been replaced by another model that starts with a foreign economic footprint which then provides an opening for private security personnel to engage in the foreign nation in order to protect the private investments.
The optics of the big army intervention in the absence of a real justification supported by public opinion is no longer a best practice. For example, when the CEO of the French multinational oil and gas company Total Energies, Patrick Pouyanne, begged European countries to come to the aid of Mozambique in its fight against Daesh in 2020, his request fell on deaf ears. Islamist insurgency had been hindering the company's natural gas project development, ultimately delaying it until at least 2026.
When the largest of European industrial giants have to fend for themselves in Africa despite cries for help to their home countries because the optics are politically problematic, it's no wonder that other nation state competitors are opting for lower profile security options with smaller footprints that allow for greater plausible deniability than large formal deployments.
And it's onto this landscape that Macron is hoping to graft his European force as the new window dressing for his planned projection of European economic, military, and political power. Unfortunately, Macron is viewing the current battlefield through a dodgy viewfinder warped a bit too much by ideological and political will.