President Emmanuel Macron will host a conference on Africa on Friday billed as a summit but with no other leaders attending, as he aims to readjust France’s relationship with the continent.
Instead of other heads of state and premiers, Macron is inviting hundreds of young businesspeople, artists, and sporting figures to the southern city of Montpellier.
The aim is “to listen to the words of African youth” and “to leave behind obsolete formulas and frameworks”, said a French presidential official who asked not to be named.
The meeting comes at a delicate moment between France and many of its former colonies in French-speaking Africa, as a row rumbles on over a decision to cut visas to citizens of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Algeria recalled its ambassador after Macron reportedly said the country was ruled by a “political-military system”, while tensions have erupted between France and Mali over plans to deploy Russian mercenaries as part of an anti-jihadist fight.
The new format hints at the frustration felt by France, which has held summits with African leaders since 1973, with the political leadership of some countries.
Roughly 3,000 participants including more than 1,000 young people are expected in Montpellier for discussions on economic, cultural, and political issues.
Macron is set to debate with a panel of young people chosen after months of dialogue led by the Cameroon intellectual Achille Mbembe, who is in charge of preparing the meeting.
“Subjects that cause anger will be on the table,” the French presidential official said, adding that “the current political context makes the discussion particularly sensitive”.
French officials are promising concrete proposals from a report that Mbembe is to submit to Macron on Tuesday.
Macron vowed in a November 2017 speech in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to take a new approach to Africa, where France would no longer tell Africans what to do.
He has also made a point of reaching out to English-speaking Africa to build sway beyond France’s former colonial possessions.
On Thursday, Macron will meet in Paris with former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, still a hugely influential figure on the continent.
Since the 2017 speech, cultural artefacts pillaged from Benin have been returned and the abolition of the CFA franc, a currency once used in several countries but guaranteed by France, has been abolished.
Meanwhile, a report commissioned by Macron acknowledged France’s “overwhelming responsibilities” over the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, an issue that has poisoned relations between Paris and Kigali.
“Since the speech in Ouagadougou, the lines have moved symbolically, there have been important gestures,” said Amadou Sadjo Barry, a Canadian philosopher of Guinean origin.
“But in terms of foreign policy, we cannot speak of major changes,” he told AFP.
France remains more than ready to tolerate autocratic regimes, quickly accepting the handover of power from Chad’s president Idriss Deby Itno to his son in April.
While the Montpellier format may help bring some new life into France-Africa relations, Barry described the meeting as “a symbolic defeat for Africa”.
“Why is it still that the human, political and economic future of the African continent is being discussed in France? Why don’t African governments themselves listen to the concerns of their populations,” he asked.