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French government promotes new Africa business drive

THE French government is stepping up efforts to strengthen ties with the African continent in the run-up to a key business forum at the end of the month. Africa’s leading European trading partner wants to forget the colonial past and get on with trade.

France ‘wants to build with Africa,’ said Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, French Minister of State for Europe and Foreign Affairs, speaking at a press conference Tuesday, outlining the second edition of Ambition Africa.

The government initiative launched last year aims at boosting trade between France and Africa, which has seen a surge of foreign investors scrambling to do business.

The World Bank predicts that the GDP growth rate for Sub-Saharan Africa will reach 3.4 percent this year, up from 2018. And in the past 8 years, annual growth on the continent has climbed to 7 percent, exceeding the global growth rate.

‘Africa’s potential is obvious,’ Lemoyne continued. ‘Our destinies are linked by a range of factors: climatic, commercial (…) either we succeed together, or we don’t succeed at all,’ he insisted. ‘Ambition Africa is one means.’

The project, which enters its second year, was presented Tuesday in Paris at the national agency Business France, in charge of promoting French companies abroad.

‘Ambition Africa is about organising B2B meetings, conferences and workshops, between French companies and African companies, covering all sectors,’ explains Axel Baroux, the director of Business France’s Sub-Saharan branch.

French approach

The continent is expected to account for 2.5 billion inhabitants, and France, like its competitors, is keen on capitalising on this demographic dividend.

However, French authorities insist their approach is hinged on local development.

‘The African people want to be a major actor of their own development and not only to be a consumer. We are not just there to sell our products. This is the French approach,’ Baroux told RFI.

More than 6,300 French companies are currently doing business on the continent and employ some 650,000 people.

Projects like Ambition Africa are part of President Emmanuel Macron’s drive to reset Franco-African relations and distinguish them from the post-colonial networks of Françafrique. Still, there are concerns that this French interest may come with strings attached.

‘We have a long history with Africa, a happy history and a little less happy history,’ Baroux acknowledges.

Françafrique has long been associated with “France à fric” – a source of cash, and some critics say this network of France’s influence in its former colonies in Africa is still alive today.

‘The idea now is to really organize partnerships between France and Africa. It’s not only a question of commerce, but it’s also a question of co-operation, and migration as well,’ defends Barouxs, amid warnings that Africa’s burgeoning youth, if not provided the right opportunities, could become a ticking time bomb for Europe.

Mass registration

‘It’s a question of development, and we want to be near our African neighbour, not to help them but to develop with them their own continent,’ Baroux said.

French companies like Coppernic are taking this message on board. The tech firm specialising in mobile solutions is helping African nations to build up their ID infrastructure.

‘The World Bank says that 1.1 billion people have no legal identities, they have not been registered. That means they have no access to elections or social programmes,’ said Jacques Le Cuivre, the director of Coppernic.

The firm has registered hundreds of Africans using a new multifunction biometric tablet that takes only four fingerprints as opposed to ten.

‘We strongly believe that it will be a game-changer for the massive enrolment campaigns that many African countries will have to run in the next few years in their elections,’ Le Cuivre told RFI.

Stories like that of Coppernic are what the French government is looking for to illustrate that its interest in Africa is a win-win development and not a new form of colonialism.

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