Comment: Emmanuel Macron dances with the dictators

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A week after Colonel Mamady Doumbouya took power in Guinea, France still does not know how to respond to the crisis unfolding in its former West African colony. For now, he seems content to let multilateral bodies such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States try to find a solution.

They are unlikely to go very far. The AU suspended Guinea’s membership and ECOWAS held a “positive” meeting with the coup leader in Conakry, the country’s capital on the Atlantic coast. But there is little hope for a quick restoration of civilian government.

The most likely outcome is a junta led by Doumbouya and the promise of democratic transition somewhere down the line. It was the compromise formula that followed the coups d’état in two other French-speaking countries, Mali and Chad, at the start of the summer.

This arrangement suited French President Emmanuel Macron perfectly. He had made only muted criticisms of the Bamako coup and approved the appointment of the junta in N’Djamena. The promise of democracy in the future has eased the embarrassment of doing business with tyrants for the time being.

But France’s rapid accommodation of strong military personnel was to inspire other aspirants in French-speaking Africa. Doumbouya was one of those who paid special attention to it.

It is not yet clear how much time he spent with fellow colonel, Malian Assimi Goita, when the two took part in a 2019 US-led military exercise in Burkina Faso. But it hardly escaped the attention of Guineans that Goita was subsequently able to lead two coups d’état – toppling President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020, then transitional President Bah N’Daw in May – with little more than Macron’s rambling disapproval. France suspended its joint operations with the Malian army for barely a month.

Ironically, the man ousted from Doumbouya also relied on Macron’s hypocrisy. President Alpha Condé was re-elected last year after forcing a constitutional amendment to allow himself a third term. When the French leader blasted him for this seizure of power, Condé felt that forgiveness would follow. After all, Macron had no qualms about congratulating Ivorian Alassane Ouattara on securing a third term using a few constitutional pranks.

But Doumbouya’s coup comes at a particularly delicate time for the French president, who is preparing for re-election even as his party tries to recover from a humiliating defeat in the regional vote in June. As Macron hits the huts, his foreign policy record comes under particularly close scrutiny, amid rumbles of concern among professional diplomats, who say he is more spectacular than substantial.

Improving relations with French-speaking African countries, in the face of the growing influence of China, Turkey and Russia, has been one of Macron’s priorities. The region provided him with opportunities to elevate his international stature, including a high-profile summit earlier this summer. Perhaps more importantly, the cooperation of the former French colonies is crucial to the president’s counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, the belt of countries south of the Sahara.

These factors may explain why he is wary of opposing the new rulers of Mali, Chad and now Guinea. But by granting a new laissez-passer to a strong military man, Macron is actually inviting others to take advantage of his weak hand. Several other leaders in the region will now look nervously over their shoulders: Ouattara from Côte d’Ivoire, Faure Gnassingbé from Togo, Paul Biya from Cameroon and Patrice Talon from Benin.

Even if there are no more coups d’état by the French presidential election next April, the democratic withdrawal in Africa will at least be a source of embarrassment for Macron. He will have only himself to blame.


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