France's Macron kicks off four-nation tour of Africa
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) shakes hands with Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba (R) during a bilateral meeting at Presidential Palace in Libreville, on March 1, 2023. French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Libreville on March 1, 2023, for a four-day tour of Central Africa, designed to usher in a new era in the relationship between France and the continent where anti-French resentment is growing. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP)
(AFP) - France's President Emmanuel Macron began a tour of Central Africa on Wednesday in a diplomatic drive to test a new "responsible relationship" with the continent as anti-French sentiment runs high in some former colonies.
He landed in Gabon's capital Libreville on Wednesday and will later head to Angola, Congo-Brazzaville and the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Macron's trip comes as alarm grows in Paris over Russia's rising influence in French-speaking African countries, joining China, which has been present in the region for some years.
Burkina Faso, according to official correspondence seen by AFP on Wednesday, has told France it is renouncing a 1961 agreement that provided a legal basis for French military aid.
In a speech on France's Africa policy on Monday, Macron 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.
"Our interest is first and foremost democracy," as well as economic partnerships, he said.
He also said the French military would reduce its footprint on the continent in the coming months, though a military source and analyst have said French army chiefs may be reluctant to do so.
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 region further north, including in Niger and Chad.
- Distraction? -
In Gabon, Macron will dine with President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Wednesday and present him with 900 recordings of songs, tales and other oral folklore made in the country between 1954 and 1970.
On Thursday 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 oil palm and rubber industries, and illegal logging and mineral exploitation.
Gabonese environmental activist Marc Ona Essangui told AFP he was worried Macron's visit would detract from the rainforest summit's main goal.
Gabonese people would instead likely view his presence as giving a political boost to Bongo 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 on Friday. There, he is set to sign an accord to develop the agricultural sector as part of a drive to enhance French ties with English- and Portuguese-speaking parts of Africa.
- Congo talks -
He will then stop in the Republic of Congo, another former French colony, where President Denis Sassou Nguesso has ruled for almost four decades, albeit in several stints.
Finally, he will end his trip on Saturday in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was ruled by Belgium during the colonial era.
President Felix Tshisekedi has been at the helm of DRC since January 2019, but he is up for re-election later this year, and here too the opposition has voiced reservations about the French president's visit.
The DRC accuses its smaller neighbour Rwanda of backing the M23 rebel group in the east of the country, a charge denied by Kigali.
Dozens of young Congolese demonstrators holding Russian flags rallied outside the French embassy in the capital Kinshasa on Wednesday to denounce Macron's visit.
Anti-French rallies have erupted in recent months in the former colonies of Mali and Burkina Faso in the Sahel.
Paris has fallen out with the military authorities there and withdrawn 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 Ukraine, of being active in Mali and the Central African Republic, also once ruled by France.
Paris has also accused Russia of spreading anti-French propaganda.
© Agence France-Presse