Macron’s fine diplomatic balancing act between Kagame and Tshisekedi

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As tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali continue to grow in eastern DRC, a confidential meeting between the French and Rwandan presidents took place in Paris in early June. Emmanuel Macron plans to speak by phone next with Felix Tshisekedi and is backing Angolan mediation.

There has as yet been no official confirmation but, according to Africa Intelligence sources, Emmanuel Macron discreetly received Paul Kagame at the Elysée Palace in early June. The Rwandan leader was in Paris as part of a private visit to France.

Tension mounts

The deteriorating situation in eastern DRC was at the centre of the discussions. The Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC) have been fighting the M23 armed group in North Kivu province for several weeks, and Felix Tshisekedi’s government has accused Kigali of providing “military support” to the rebel movement. In turn, Rwandan officials point to cooperation between the FARDC and the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), an armed group made up of Hutu fighters implicated in the genocide. On the night of 12 to 13 June, tensions rose again when the M23 took the town of Bunagana. The ongoing violent clashes and hate speech – notably by FARDC officials, civil society organisations and activists of the president’s Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS) party – revived memories of past wars and fears of a new regional crisis.

Macron, who has built up a relationship of trust with Kagame over the past two years, tried to appease him by stressing that he supported the Angolan mediation led by João Lourenço at the request of the chairman of the African Union (AU), Senegal’s Macky Sall. He also endorsed for a “reconciliation” meeting between Kagame and Tshisekedi, which Angolan diplomats are currently working on. Representatives of the two leaders are currently in Luanda every few days.

Angolan mediation

Anxious not to be seen as being in the driving seat, Paris has preferred to rely on Luanda. Macron’s approach favours support for initiatives led by African regional organisations. Since he is at the head of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), Lourenço seems like a reliable partner. France has long supported Angolan diplomatic efforts in the region, particularly in the Central African Republic. It also relied to a large extent on the Angolan president to convince Joseph Kabila not to run for a third term in the DRC’s belated December 2018 elections.

Concerned by the escalation of violence in eastern DRC, the French president also plans to speak to Tshisekedi by telephone in the next few days. As with Kagame, he is likely to reiterate his call for dialogue and the holding of a meeting between the two leaders.

Paris on edge

The good relations that Macron has maintained with his Rwandan and Congolese counterparts have enabled him to tread this fine line. During his first term, he greatly strengthened his ties with both Kinshasa and Kigali. At the same time, a freshly elected Tshisekedi was initiating a diplomatic, economic and security rapprochement with Kagame. The resurgence of tensions between the two neighbours means France is having to take part in a diplomatic balancing act.

A visit by Macron in the coming months to the DRC, and Angola is still being considered by the Elysée. However, this will depend on how the regional situation develops. There is also a security element to the rapprochement between Paris and Kinshasa, and intelligence cooperation between the French and Congolese services has been strengthened. Furthermore, Paris has rolled out several training programmes for the FARDC, particularly in the east where more than a hundred armed groups are still active. This training has been provided by the Eléments Français du Gabon (EGF) at Camp de Gaulle in Libreville.

Meanwhile, Yoweri Museveni, sent several thousand Uganda People Defence Forces (UPDF) troops to North Kivu at the end of 2021 to fight the Islamist armed group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), alongside the FARDC. Relations are strained between the Rwandan president and his Ugandan counterpart, and Kagame did not appreciate being left out of this operation. Kampala and Kigali have both sought to exercise their influence in eastern DRC, which has paralysed efforts to achieve regional security.

In this regional geopolitical game, Paris has attempted to maintain its good relations with Kampala, and since 2017 has been trying to normalise relations with Kigali. This led a year ago to Macron’s “historic” visit to Rwanda. In the wake of this, the Elysée appointed its first ambassador to the country for six years. On the security front, several avenues of cooperation are also under discussion: the Rwandan chief of staff, General Jean-Bosco Kazura, made an official visit to Paris last March to discuss the matter. Since there is currently no defence attaché at the French embassy in Kigali, it is the French military mission in Burundi that is in charge of following up on the matter.

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