France is moving aid policy to Africa to counter growing Chinese influence

France wants to reform its aid policy to Africa – making it both more generous and more targeted – as part of a strategy to counter China’s growing geopolitical influence.

Africa’s booming economies and population have created lucrative opportunities for international actors, which has made the continent a breeding ground for geopolitical competition over the past decade. The International Monetary Fund found in 2019 that Africa had become the world’s fastest growing region, with the World Economic Forum predicting that its population would double to about 2.2 billion by 2050.

China is Africa’s largest bilateral trading partner, after surpassing the United States in 2009. Before the coronavirus crisis hit the world economy, the value of Sino-African trade reached 161 billion euros ($ 192 billion) in 2019.

“Right now, any major project in African cities that is taller than three stories or roads that are longer than three kilometers is likely to be built and constructed by the Chinese,” Dave Roggeveen, founder of the specialty publication MORE Architecture, told Forbes 2018.

In addition to infrastructure, China has invested heavily in the media in Africa – with the state-owned Xinhua News Agency developing the continent’s largest network of correspondents. Nairobi is at the heart of China’s African media presence, with Xinhua moving one of its headquarters from Paris to the Kenyan capital in 2006.

France is now also trying to take new steps on the African continent by adjusting its strategy towards developing countries. Paris has managed to increase its global aid budget even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, where development spending increased from € 10.9 billion in 2019 to € 12.8 billion in 2020.

On March 2, French parliamentarians approved a bill that increased France’s aid budget to 0.55 percent of GDP by 2022. President Macron’s government is also stepping up efforts to ensure that aid money is effective. The bill contains five main goals – “to fight poverty, to combat climate change, to strengthen public health, to expand education services and achieve gender equality” – with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa and also Haiti.

“International solidarity has never been more necessary than it is now,” said Louis-Nicolas Jandeaux, a spokesman for Oxfam France. The Covid-19 pandemic shows us how so many major challenges – such as fighting poverty and protecting public health – are linked. Given that France is a leader in these multilateral issues, and given that French President Emmanuel Macron has talked so much about strengthening international cooperation, France really needs to be a good example of issues such as aid spending. ”

The bill also aims to give France more value for its aid by merging its two development agencies. The French development agency – which grants loans and grants – will be merged with France Expertise – which focuses on the importance of development project logistics. This merger enables French aid workers to “respond better and more directly to the needs of the countries in which we work”, says Jérémie Pellet, Head of France Expertise.

The law contains a plan to return “ill-gotten” assets that the French judiciary has confiscated from foreign leaders. France has made efforts to follow corrupt politicians who have stowed millions on French soil. In 2020, a court in Paris sentenced Teodorin Obiang, vice president of Equatorial Guinea, to three years in prison and a fine of 30 million euros for laundering money through French real estate.

Redirecting illegal money back to the people is also part of a diplomatic strategy to increase France’s image in Africa.

“This aspect seems so morally sound that it is almost impossible to oppose it,” said Magali Chelpi-den Hamer, director of the humanitarian and development program at Paris-based think tank IRIS (French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs). “However, the volume involved will be relatively low.”

Avoid the debt trap

France has had a long and complicated relationship with Africa. It gained control of large parts of the continent – mainly by seizing most of West Africa – in the competitive conquest of the continent launched by European powers from the 17th century.

After a wave of successful independence movements in the 1950s and 1960s, France maintained close ties with many Francophone excolonies in a policy known as Françafrique. Proponents of this approach saw France as a guarantor of stability on the continent, but critics saw France as an aversion to relinquishing its colonial influence and continuing to play a client list.

The French state’s focus on Africa waned in the 1990s as it turned its attention to European integration. But France has once again targeted the continent to counter China’s growing influence.

And this time, France is trying to ensure that its activities on the continent are not reminiscent of neo-colonialism, with a new aid policy favoring grants over loans.

Analysts have become increasingly concerned that China is creating debt traps with its substantial loans to African countries, for which it is the largest bilateral lender. Chinese loans to underdeveloped countries are even larger than official figures indicate: about half of them are not reported to the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, a report for the German think tank that the Kiel Institute for the World Economy found in 2019.

So far, France has not had any fantastic records on loans: in 2018, half of the development aid was in loans instead of grants, according to Oxfam. Although “Western countries also use debt to gain influence in African countries, unlike China, they are very keen to avoid setting debt traps,” said IRIS’s Chelpi-den Hamer.

“We are fighting China in a struggle for influence – and a struggle over which system of governments should be seen as their model,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Inter radio last month.

China’s growing involvement in Africa threatens to “become negative in the medium to long term”, Macron warned at a press conference in Djibouti on his tour of Africa in 2019.

“I would not want a new generation of international investment to violate the sovereignty of our historical partners or weaken their economies,” he added.

France’s bill on aid reform is now going to the Senate and is expected to become law this summer.

This article was translated from the original in French.