By bringing together around 3,000 young people rather than political leaders, the New Africa-France Summit sought to chart a new course for the countries involved, but the true measure of success will be the degree to which the views of the participants gain traction among those in power.
The French Mediterranean city of Montpellier hosted the New Africa-France Summit on 8 October. The Summit brought together around 3,000 young businesspeople, artists, writers, researchers, athletes and students from across France, Africa and the African diaspora.
Although leaning towards Francophone Africa, participants came from Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, with the Indian Ocean littoral represented by Kenya and South Africa.
For the first half of the programme, participants discussed ways of forging new partnerships across five broad themes:
- Citizen engagement and democracy
- Doing business and innovating
- Higher education, research and innovation
- Culture, heritage and co-operation
- Cultural and creative industries
- Sport and engagement in Africa
The day concluded with the opportunity to raise concerns directly with French President Emmanuel Macron in a three-hour-long roundtable session.
The proceedings were livestreamed, with sessions broadcast in French, English, Arabic and Portuguese.
Intended to “re-invent” the Africa-France relationship by leaving behind the often murky past of the “Françafrique” post-colonial era, the summit focussed on learning directly the views and lived experiences of younger generations. It was preceded by a number of Africa-France dialogues held across Africa over the course of the year, involving around 5,000 youthful participants and co-ordinated by Summit convenor, Professor Achille Mbembé.
At the same time, however, Professor Mbembé, who was chosen for his role by President Macron, has said that it is ‘not a summit that will change relations between Africa and France, but that it is the start of a very long phase that will last … one or two generations’.
Tempering expectations may be wise, though, given that many of the initiatives foreshadowed four years ago at Macron’s speech to the University of Ouagadougou are still to take on a more concrete form. On the other hand, of course, that is precisely why some tangible progress needs to be made, and sooner rather than later.
In a deliberate break with tradition, and in recognition of the significant gap between the average ages of African citizens and their leaders, no heads of state or government were invited, making it the first Franco-African summit in almost fifty years to eschew the presence of politicians. As the Brookings Institute has previously noted, ‘sixty percent of Africa’s 1.25 billion people are under age 25 – the youngest population in the world – but the median age of leaders in Africa is 62, older than the OECD median.’
Professor Mbembé has previously accused France of being disconnected from the energy and optimism of African youth.
For the final, plenary session of the Summit, a panel of 12 African young people had the opportunity to air their concerns personally with President Macron.
Macron appears willing to accept and confront the historical legacies and contemporary difficulties confronting young people across Africa, acknowledging that France owed a debt to Africa and saying, ‘I have heard your concerns, and I encourage all of you to be brutally honest and to speak out boldly so that together we can find practical solutions to our problems’.
The panellists took him up on that offer, highlighting such challenges as the legacies of colonialism and uncertainty as to what France stands for in Africa, and critiquing the apparent continuing support of Paris for the perpetrators of coups d’état (albeit in the interests of stability and security), most particularly in the former French colonies of the Sahel region, where jihadist insurgencies continue to spread and are a source of strain in Franco-African ties.
Closing the summit, President Macron endorsed a number of proposals, including the creation of a fund to support initiatives to promote democracy, programmes allowing greater student mobility, and the establishment of a future “Euro-African forum on migration”.
The format of the Summit was certainly innovative but, as ever, the true measure of success will be the degree to which the views of the participants gain traction, both on the ground and in the corridors of power.