A rival or a partner for Paris?
China’s emergence in West Africa directly challenges French economic interests. Chinese companies have moved into sectors long dominated by French players: civil engineering, extractives, telecoms, ports. French national champions – Vinci, Eiffage, Orange, Bouygues, Total, Areva, Alstom – must now go toe-to-toe with Beijing’s giants, which benefit from the kind of state patronage Paris used to offer its star companies.
But there is also scope for economic cooperation. French and Chinese companies have on occasion broken from open competition to partner on specific African projects. French companies offer high-end capabilities and a wealth of operational knowledge of Francophone Africa. Aided by their presence in the Chinese domestic market, companies such as Suez and Alstom have won subcontractor roles for Chinese projects in Africa. Logistics giant Bolloré signed a ‘global partnership’ with Alibaba in 2018. And as Société Générale has found, there are rich pickings for French companies servicing Chinese entrants to Francophone Africa.
This commercial cooperation was the basis of a 2015 - 16 drive by Paris to secure deeper Franco-Chinese collaboration in Africa. In 2015, the two sides agreed to promote partnerships in third markets, principally in Africa, and Paris appointed an ambassador for Franco-Chinese partnership in Africa. However, this drive ran aground on the limited appetite for state-guided, formal partnership among companies mostly in direct competition. A planned China-France-Africa business summit in Dakar never took place and a mooted cooperation fund was stillborn.
Macron changes tack
Since becoming president in 2017, Macron has reinvigorated France’s global role – and recast its ties with Africa (including greater emphasis on Anglophone Africa). He has also taken a robust line on China – notably emphasising a unified European stance – and warned Africa of the danger of Chinese debt. But he has also appealed to Beijing as a ‘partner’ in Africa, denying they were ‘strategic rivals’. To reanimate Franco-Chinese cooperation on Africa, Macron has shifted the focus to security and development cooperation, notably on climate. During a 2018 China visit, Macron announced a partnership between China Development Bank and the Agence Française de Développement for African climate projects, and solicited Chinese funding for the G5 Sahel joint force combating terrorism in West Africa. Beijing has since provided limited, but growing, support to the G5.
China is a reticent partner in Africa
Encounters in Africa are just one dimension of a multifaceted Franco-Chinese relationship that stretches from the UNSC to France’s military presence in the Pacific, via trade issues and Brussels. Greater cooperation in Africa is appealing as a thread to strengthen these ties, while also shaping developments on the continent. But Paris has relatively little to show for its efforts so far. A China determined to go it alone and differentiate itself from other international players in Africa is wary of being seen to cosy up to France. Meanwhile African states stand to gain more from international partners competing for their affections – and contracts – a point noted to me recently by a Senegalese foreign ministry official. Paris’ slow going offers a lesson to other European actors seeking greater Africa cooperation with China.
Tom Bayes was a Visiting Academic Fellow at MERICS from July 2019 until February 2020. He is the author of a forthcoming report on China in West African security that was supported by MERICS and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).