France’s focus on Africa at Valetta may be a casualty of the Paris massacres

With the most recent terrorist attacks, the discussion in Paris about the refugee crisis is set to change. Security is, for obvious reasons, the first and foremost topic of debate and political division right now. But political as well as intellectual figures are already establishing a link between the terrorist threat, free circulation of individuals within Europe and the relocation on French soil of refugees and migrants reaching Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, the Sahel, etc. Under strong pressure, the French government has insisted on recent measures of control that will soon enter into force and has called for tougher security on the external borders of the European Union. But this is unlikely to stop this discussion from getting further traction.

Yet, when the Valletta Summit took place last week, French authorities had a much broader and longer tem perspective. France had been instrumental, along with Germany, in pushing for a high-level international meeting dedicated to migration from the African continent. And it wanted to move forward onto a threefold response to the root causes of those African migrations to Europe: a more effective development policy, but also a stronger effort in terms of capacity building with a view to enhancing security and border management in transit countries, and some progress on readmission and the framework for legal migration.

France traditionally advocates for more European focus on what is at stake in the Mediterranean region as well as for stronger ties with Africa. Already, migration is a central and difficult topic that lie at the core of relations between Europe and Africa, and more particularly in the bilateral relations between France and a majority of those African countries that were represented at the highest level at the Summit. There is significant consensus on the importance of this issue, if not on the best way to tackle it.

Precisely because of this traditional interest, Paris was well aware of the many difficulties coming with this topic. First, migration has been discussed for years in the framework of the European-African dialogue, already before the current refugee crisis started, and yet very little has actually happened. Second, after focussing on Western Mediterranean flows, Europe now looks towards the Balkans route, and France knows very well the difficulty for the European Union to focus simultaneously on its eastern and southern flanks: it is a case in point that the extraordinary meeting of the European Council convened in Malta right after the Summit with African partners stole most of the show. Third, migration is a particularly difficult issue, not only within the European Union, but obviously also with third-party countries, which often have a very different perspective on the issue, as is clearly the case with African partners.

Right before the Valletta Summit, French officials had had an opportunity to listen to African interlocutors on this particular topic at the Dakar Forum, an event dedicated to international discussions on peace and security in Africa. Migration was a major issue this year, and some bitterness was clearly expressed by the African side. Africans have insisted that more than 80 percent of migration flows in African remain in Africa. And with poor governance, development aid’s limited impact, and other political but also demographic challenges, the flow of refugees and African migrants towards Europe is unlikely to stop. And yet, humanitarian needs are rarely met. The €1.8 billion emergency fund that was to be announced in Malta were immediately compared to the €3 billion offered to Turkey only a few weeks ago.

French president Hollande came to Valletta bearing this in mind and tried to strike a balance. He insisted on the African dimension of the refugee crisis, and the continuing level of deaths that take place on the western side of the Mediterranean. He mentioned that he shared Africans’ concerns but also believed in opportunities in Africa, including for economic growth. To put it simply, he positioned himself as Africa’s advocate. But he also made clear that France would continue to seek an effort from African partners, for instance on readmissions and border management. And he insisted on the importance of a strong security response – not always very well thought of in Africa – taking advantage of the importance of transnational criminal networks or the magnitude of threats such as the situation in Libya and more broadly in the wider Sahel region to rest his case.

For France, tackling these structural challenges is as important as addressing immediate concerns, perhaps because Paris has been comparatively less hit by the immediate impacts of the refugee crisis. But in general France remains very much exposed to migration and refugee flows, and very preoccupied by the impact of the crisis on its own politics as much as on European solidarity.

Before the Paris attacks, the government’s thinking was that dealing with economic migration in an effective and structural manner, setting up responses to root causes of those flows, would allow for Europe to offer a better response to the refugees.

Given the catastrophe that just took place in Paris, the focus is now radically different. Political debate is about how best to fight against the terrorist threat, and looks at the broader Middle East again. And most options put on the table point to relying on national decisions. For Europe, there is a strong risk that not only does it have difficulties in making decisions, but also when it does make them, difficulties implementing them at a pace commensurate with the current sense of urgency. This gives a pretext to those who think the French response can and should be unilateral.

This would not sit well with Europe’s collective ability to respond to the refugee crisis in an organised and sustained way. The French government insists on the European Union and all member states acting upon decisions they have already made, such as strengthening Frontex, creating “hotspots” (i.e. screening centres on the external borders of Europe) to identify asylum seekers, reinforcing European policy on return and readmission to third countries, etc. But it will need more than that to convince the French public that a European response is the best way out of these crises.


Read more on: Migration, View from the Capitals, European Power, EU instruments

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.