Opinion: In Africa, Future of French Companies Goes Through China

The French presidential agenda at the end of 2017 put Africa at the heart of French diplomatic efforts: President Emmanuel Macron closed the year by celebrating Christmas with the troops engaged in Operation Barkane in Niger. This trip closely followed a heavily business oriented trip to Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. And 2018 opened with his first presidential visit to China. It is interesting to note that Macron went to China just after visiting Africa — because there is no doubt that Africa is one of the main domains on which the two countries have a pressing interest in cooperating.

It is an understatement to say that over the last decade, the Chinese breakthrough in Africa has become a source of anxiety and fantasy for French business leaders. The loss of markets, the difficulty of competing against an offensive supposedly based on the disregard for good governance and social dumping, not to mention pervasive environmental degradation... The worst has been said about the Chinese presence in Africa.

Fortunately, reality is evolving faster than our perception. France and China are already engaged in many forms of beneficial cooperation in Africa. Crises first brought the three regions together. The French and Chinese have very recently cooperated — and continue to cooperate — to fight Ebola, and China has provided strategic support for French intervention in Mali. France and China have also created a 300 million euro ($372 million) fund to be invested in Africa and Asia — with a goal to reach a total of 2 billion euros.

On the economic front, China and France also signed a joint statement in 2015 about “investment in third markets,” a first for China. The best sign that Franco-Chinese cooperation is succeeding in Africa is that the ability of both states to work together is gradually taking root in the private sector.

This type of alliance makes it possible to reap benefits from the expertise of each of the stakeholders: the Chinese company that buys the production, the shipping company that is responsible for exporting it, and the local operator that operates the mine on the ground. The Asian partners thus benefit from French professionals’ in-depth knowledge of local African realities, bringing valuable skills for the sustainable exploitation of the site. Guinea enjoys considerable tax revenues, estimated at several hundred million euros, while local communities benefit from tens of thousands of new jobs.

Today, China in Africa is an unavoidable reality. And, just as we cannot reduce Africa and its 54 countries to a homogeneous reality, we cannot sum up China’s action in Africa to just a few Chinese companies. The areas for Franco-Chinese cooperation abound. In the energy sector, for example, China and France can provide alternative solutions (solar, wind, nuclear) to the African energy challenge. There are also opportunities for synergy in the health care sector, with global leadership by French pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, Africa imports immense amounts of medicine from China.

The future of French companies’ presence in Africa lies in increased cooperation with China, just as the durability of China’s presence in Africa depends on its ability to learn from Western, and particularly French expertise, notably in francophone Africa. The key to this equation is to maintain a high level of dialogue, and strict transparency requirements, in the relations between the three partners.

It is based only on this condition that this innovative partnership will lead to more inclusive growth.

Frederic Bouzigues is managing director of the Societe Miniere de Boke, adviser for Foreign Trade of France in Guinea and consular advisor for Guinea and Sierra Leone.

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