Emmanuel Macron traveled to Cameroon on Monday to launch an African tour that will also take the French president to Benin and Guinea-Bissau. Macron’s trip focuses on food security, French investments and governance. The latter is a tricky one ahead of his meeting with 89-year-old Cameroonian President Paul Biya, who has been in power for four decades as the country braces for an uncertain succession.
Macron’s trip marks a new stage in the recently re-elected French president’s Africa policy, after his first term was dominated by the fight against terrorism in the Sahel and budding ties with English-speaking African countries like Ghana.
The president begins his tour on Tuesday in the Cameroonian capital, Yaoundé, where Biya will welcome him for talks. The conversation should focus on cooperation in agriculture to help tackle the food crisis in the developing world, the fight against terrorism – and governance and the rule of law; a sensitive subject that has already been the subject of heated debate between the two leaders.
Biya returned to power for a seventh term in October 2018, with official tallies giving him a landslide victory over opponent Maurice Kamto. The opposition candidate and many of his supporters were arrested in January 2019 – and only released after nine months in detention – after challenging the result on the streets. Beneath the surface, Macron and Biya had several contentious discussions on the matter.
The amnesty releasing these prisoners – more than a hundred in total – was announced five days before a meeting between French and Cameroonian leaders in Lyon.
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A few months after this episode, a Cameroonian activist asked Macron in February 2020 about the situation in the English-speaking part of the country, where authorities are fighting a separatist insurgency that accuses the government of committing genocide. Macron responded by saying he would exert “maximum pressure” on Biya to end all human rights abuses.
The Cameroonian government was unimpressed with Macron’s statement, emphasizing its national sovereignty. At the same time, hundreds of people demonstrated in front of the French Embassy in Yaoundé to demand an “apology”.
“While they both reflect Cameroon’s authoritarian governance, political prisoners and the separatist conflict are two very distinct issues,” said Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher in the Africa program at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris.
“Kamto is not the first political prisoner France has managed to free,” Vircoulon noted. Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, “succeeded in getting Michel Thierry Atangana, an engineer who had spent 17 years in prison, out of prison”, he pointed out.
“But when it comes to separatists, it’s a whole different matter,” continued Vircoulon. “Macron is not advancing on this issue. When you reach Biya’s age, you do not change. He has gone through the process of centralizing power and he has no interest in delegating part of it to English speakers.
For its part, the Élysée Palace affirms that Macron will not try “in any case” to promote a particular model of governance.
According to the French government, the main objective of Macron’s visit is to develop agricultural ties with Cameroon – Central Africa’s largest economy – at a time when the war in Ukraine has generated a food crisis threatening to engulf the whole continent.
Investments by French companies will also be on the agenda, as Africa has become a major economic and geostrategic competitor among the great powers. Cameroon has deepened its ties with China and recently signed a military agreement with Russia.
“France wants to ensure the loyalty of Cameroon in a context of relative decline of its influence in Africa, as evidenced by the state of its relations with Mali, the Central African Republic and to some extent Guinea and Burkina Faso”, said Nicanor Tatchim, professor of political communication. at the University of Paris-Est Créteil. Paris’ partnership with Yaoundé is “essential” because of Cameroon’s role as a source of goods for the surrounding region, notably Chad, where France has a military base.
Questions about the post-Biya transition
But there is no doubt that this trip marks a change in tone from France to Cameroon, said Larissa Kojoué, a political scientist at the University of Buea in southwestern Cameroon. “At first, he took a rather critical stance towards the Cameroonian authorities – but one gets the impression that he has softened his position since then. […] and put France’s economic interests ahead of the rule of law.
Koujoué argued that – intentionally or not – Macron is sending some sort of pro-Biya signal with his visit.
“Biya’s greatest political victory is making people believe that no one would come after him, thus staying in power all these years,” she said. “He methodically discarded everyone who had the potential to make a fresh start, including his loved ones. At the moment, it is Franck Biya, his son, who is mentioned as a potential successor. So, whether he has decided to do so or not, Macron is reinforcing Biya’s hegemony by going to talk to him during an official visit to Cameroon.
“Many people in Cameroon – and among the Cameroonian diaspora – are worried about the timing of this visit,” Tatchim said. “Cameroon will have a presidential election in 2025. The current regime is coming to an end and some see Macron’s arrival as a desire to prepare for the post-Biya era.”
Opposition MP Jean-Michel Nintcheu released a statement saying the people of Cameroon “will not accept” the “imposition” of a new leader who has not been “freely and democratically elected”.
“France does not organize transitions of power either in Cameroon or in any other country,” said Franck Paris, Macron’s Africa adviser. “Our role is rather to maintain close ties with our interlocutors.”
Kamto requested a meeting with Macron during the French president’s visit, but the Elysee Palace said meetings with opposition leaders are “not usual” on such trips.
Macron’s adviser, Franck Paris, nevertheless said that communication between the French government and the Cameroonian opposition was possible after the trip.
After meeting Biya, Macron will meet with representatives of Cameroonian youth among other members of civil society.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.