In sub-Saharan Africa, France faces a dilemma. On the one hand, a large number of countries, some French-speaking, are experiencing dazzling economic growth and a number of French groups already have activities there. On the other hand, the contagion of coups and the rise of anti-French sentiment are worrying our local businesses. What do you think? The example of Côte d’Ivoire is enlightening, as this country is at the heart of contradictions: attractive by its dynamism, worrying by its latent instability, ambivalent in its relationship with France.
The contemporary history of Côte d’Ivoire is tumultuous. We remember the attempted coup d’état in 2002 against socialist president Laurent Gbagbo. Putsch certainly aborted, but followed by a civil war between the north of the country, rebel, and the south, loyalist, until the fragile Ouagadougou agreements in 2007. Nobody has forgotten the terrible armed conflict of 2010-2011 – more 3,000 deaths – when Gbagbo, beaten by Alassane Ouattara, refused to cede power. For several weeks, Abidjan, and more particularly the upscale district of Cocody, seat of the presidential residence and the parties, was the scene of bloody clashes between pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara.
This deadly crisis ended when the forces of UNOCI, the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire, and the French army’s Operation Licorne installed Ouattara as president, which he still holds. Although relative calm has reigned since that time, political antagonisms are only waiting to reawaken. Many Ivorians fear the prospect of the presidential election of 2025. A French bank even assures that it will evacuate its employees to Dakar, Senegal, three hours by plane, as a preventive measure.
France, the country’s leading investor
Around 18,000 French people reside in Côte d’Ivoire, a notable presence materialized by extensive economic relations. France is the leading investor in the country, with direct investments of around 150 to 200 million euros per year, especially in finance, energy, water and construction. According to the French Treasury, 240 subsidiaries of our companies are established in Côte d’Ivoire and nearly 1,000 Ivorian companies have been created and are managed by French people. In addition, 950 of our soldiers are on site, in particular to help the Ivorians contain incursions by jihadists coming from two northern border countries, Mali and Burkina Faso. Borders particularly difficult to monitor since there is nothing natural about them.
This weight of France can be explained by the language, but also because Ivory Coast is one of the most economically dynamic African countries. After stagnating due to the two civil wars, GDP per capita adjusted for inflation has increased by 60% since 2011. Abidjan is changing visibly. Before taking on political responsibilities, Alassane Ouattara was an economist at the IMF. He knows the importance of infrastructure and knows how to raise money, whether international aid or private funds.
Abidjan, land of plenty for construction
Abidjan is an open-air construction site, as it was after independence when Félix Houphouët-Boigny ruled the country. A fifth bridge which crosses the lagoon was inaugurated last August. Under construction in the Plateau business district, Tower F and its 400 meters will be the tallest in Africa. The port has expanded and deepened to accommodate gigantic container ships from Asia. Work has begun to expand the airport, which now serves New York. Groundbreaking for the Abidjan-Lagos highway, Nigeria’s capital, is expected to begin next year. As CAN 2024 approaches, the African Football Cup of Nations, which will take place in Ivory Coast next January and February and is the pride of Ivorians, stadiums, hotels and hospitals have sprung up everywhere . Finally, the Abidjan metro, a huge north-south line that will relieve the city’s congested automobile traffic, is expected to enter service in 2026 and will be operated by Keolis, a subsidiary of SNCF.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara during the inauguration of a new bridge in the business district of Abidjan, August 12, 2023.
/ © SIA KAMBOU / AFP
Generally speaking, large French groups and their subcontractors are well established in the country. Bouygues, Alstom, Bolloré and Société Générale are major players in the expansion and modernization of Abidjan. Thus, an Ivorian middle class is emerging, consumers, who go to restaurants, frequent shopping centers and French brands like Decathlon or Fnac. The Ivoire hotel, epicenter of the violence in 2011, now belongs to the Sofitel network. Braving endemic corruption, our companies keep a foothold in the country because they are certain to find a growing market there.
A shower of grievances against the former colonizer
Until when ? Although it is difficult to measure objectively in the absence of reliable polls, the rise in anti-French sentiment is palpable. All the expatriates met there say they experience it. Above all, Ivorian business leaders, including the youngest, seem to share it. The intensity of this resentment which, fortunately, is not expressed against individuals, is even astonishing. As conversations continue, the list of grievances grows longer. The former colonizer is accused of having exported to Ivory Coast a political system in which an oligarchy monopolizes the largest share of wealth. More than sixty years after independence, France is also guilty of “economic colonization”, its flagships winning the most important contracts to the detriment of local groups. In terms of migratory flows, it would practice “double standards”, refusing Ivorian immigrants while emptying Côte d’Ivoire of its talents, to satisfy its own needs. The French army is castigated for its inability to curb terrorism in the north of the country. As for Emmanuel Macron, he would trample on African customs by appearing in shirt sleeves in front of presidents older than him, not hesitating to take them familiarly by the elbow. In short, there is hardly a problem encountered by Côte d’Ivoire that does not find its source in France. Criticism of China and Russia is more lenient.
A highly unequal country
Not everything in these criticisms is entirely false. The danger is that this resentment ends up degrading the country’s attractiveness to French investors, and becomes an insurmountable obstacle on the path to more sustainable and more inclusive growth for the 28 million Ivorians themselves. . Because this West African state remains highly unequal. Abidjan accounts for more than 60% of the country’s GDP; 40% of the population lives on less than 1.50 euros per day. Life expectancy at birth is just over 57 years. More than 90% of people who work do so informally, which makes the creation of a welfare state financed by employee contributions futile. The education system, the university and the public health service are in a disastrous state, despite abundant international aid. The corruption perception index measured in 2022 by Transparency International stands at 37, with 100 being the best score.
In Abidjan, waste is only collected occasionally and ends up in the lagoon, like most wastewater. And it was not France that pushed the Ivorian government to cap the price of rice and sugar, de facto creating shortages, to the point of having to ban the export of these products! How can we complain, in these conditions, about the lack of industries in the country? However, the advantages are numerous: wide access to the sea, immense fields of cereals and cashew trees – the world’s leading producer -, a bustling and international metropolis, quality infrastructure. The subsoil is rich in gold, diamonds, iron, bauxite, manganese and nickel.
A government that would resolutely fight against corruption, encourage wage employment to the detriment of undeclared work, allocate budgets to education and higher education, fight against the bureaucratization of the agri-food sector instead of blocking prices, this government would see the added value of its economy increases, as do wages and life expectancy, while reducing poverty. This choice is in the hands of the Ivorians, in particular the youngest who are also the most numerous: 70% of the population is under 30 years old. It is this youth who is responsible for the future of the country. If we are betting on Africa, it is it that we must address, to convince it that working with French companies is more of a lever for development than a threat of exploitation.
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