In Nairobi, for his first stopover on the African continent since his arrival at the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January, Stéphane Séjourné promised to renew the relationship with African countries. In terms of form, the objective is fulfilled. During his first speech on Saturday April 6, the head of French diplomacy addressed his Kenyan counterpart Musalia Mudavadi on familiar terms. An unusual familiarity, and one that the veteran of Kenyan politics, who has gone through different regimes for twenty-five years and occupies the portfolio of Minister of Foreign Affairs with the rank of Prime Minister, has probably not grasped.

France recognizes that it has no other choice but to reinvent itself, at a time when its influence is waning in its former home of French-speaking Africa, and where it has suffered setbacks since 2021 in Mali, Niger and in Burkina Faso, three Sahelian states led by military coup leaders that its diplomats and soldiers were asked to leave. Paris therefore wants to “build balanced, mutually respectful partnerships” with African countries, assured Stéphane Séjourné on the first day of his tour.

The head of French diplomacy is due to take part on Sunday April 7 in the commemorations of the 30th genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda, where Emmanuel Macron, although invited, has decided not to go. He will then travel to Ivory Coast on Thursday. “We must conquer new frontiers,” explains a French diplomat.

“A reasonable country, which does not stir up tensions”

Heavyweight in English-speaking East Africa, Kenya, where Emmanuel Macron visited in 2019, embodies these countries where France hopes to gain ground. President William Ruto aims to become one of Africa’s voices on the international stage. And since coming to power in 2022, he has managed to spare his Western partners while forging new alliances.

He is one of the African heads of state to have taken an “unwavering position” on the Russian offensive in Ukraine, believing that there must be “unwavering respect for the territorial integrity of United Nations member states”. , even if at the same time it sought to strengthen its commercial ties with Moscow. At the request of the United States, William Ruto also committed to leading the UN intervention force in Haiti and sending 1,000 men there. On the sub-regional scene, he commanded the East African force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, before being asked by the Congolese authorities to leave in December 2023, just one year after his deployment.

“It is a reasonable country, which does not stir up tensions,” believes the Quai d’Orsay. Finally, Paris and Nairobi share a desire to obtain results in the fight against global warming. In September 2023, the Kenyan capital hosted an African climate summit.

Play supporting roles

An opening which the French are trying to take advantage of to deploy their new policy made up of cultural, sporting, health and educational “soft power” initiatives, and to win economic markets. Paris is pleased to have increased the number of French companies present in Kenya from 50 10 years ago to 140 today, and to have enabled the employment of 34,000 people there.

But in this country where it is a new power, France sometimes struggles to achieve its objectives. The French and Kenyan foreign ministers announced on Saturday an agreement on Paris financing an urban train in Nairobi via a $138.7 million loan. A market that France has been seeking to seal for several years, and which has seen its scale reduced in order to be concluded.

Paris was also forced to abandon a major infrastructure project at the end of 2023: the construction of a 175-kilometer highway by Vinci. The 1.3 billion euros contract over 30 years was signed under the previous president but did not convince William Ruto. Unlike China, whose brand new toll booths in the shape of pagodas welcome all visitors who disembark at Nairobi airport and take the 27 kilometers of highway which take them to the center of the capital.

Now the fifth largest investor in Kenya, France comes far behind partners like the United States and the United Kingdom. At the new frontiers of its diplomacy, Paris must still be content to play second roles.