Relations between Tanzania and France are topical. A new wind from the West is blowing across Tanzania, and it is attracting unparalleled attention, especially from China and other economic powers that directly compete for opportunities in Tanzania’s natural resources and infrastructure sectors and are concerned about the geopolitical and geo-economics implications of this emerging tie. This is driven in part by the visiting French business confederation (MEDEF) delegation comprised of CEOs and investors from over 30 French companies.

The visit reflects France’s heightened priority for economic diplomacy with Tanzania and in particular the growing French interest in private sector development in Tanzania. Besides strengthening economic ties with France, the MEDEF visit should open up limitless opportunities and benefit the Tanzanian economy in many ways. In a broader perspective, the visit signifies a shift in France’s foreign policy towards Africa which has been biased towards Francophone Africa. The policy now includes Anglophone countries.

There is a view that the shift in the foreign policy is a structural response to the weaknesses of Francophone African economies and to France’s limited domestic oil and natural gas reserves and production. Tanzania is the main focus of attention as a source of new global gas supply and the country remains strategically vital to France’s future energy supply. Total, France’s biggest oil company, is one of the important business establishments in Tanzania.

Data from the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs suggests that notwithstanding the recent growth surge of economic activity, France remains a modest trading partner of Tanzania. The value of French exports, comprising mostly pharmaceuticals, declined to €127 million in 2016, from €160 million recorded in 2015. Agrifood, forestry, fishery and aquaculture products make up the bulk of the imports from Tanzania, while the manufactured goods sector is much smaller. Besides modest trade relations, investment flows between the two countries have also remained modest in both scale and substance. French FDI stock was around €23.6 million in 2015. In future, Tanzania-France ties should strengthen with expanding trade and investment cooperation.

French companies, especially in energy, logistics, transportation, construction and advertising, have started to set up bases in Tanzania, which offers a strategic transit point for a large African market spanning from the East African subregion to the rest of Africa, including the vast Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are more than 40 registered French companies in Tanzania, official data shows, confirming France’s adoption of a pro-commercial engagement strategy with Tanzania and the shift in its policy towards Africa, which now embraces Anglophone Africa. Apart from Total, other French business establishments in Tanzania include Bollore, CFAO Group, JCDecaux, and Maurel & Prom.

The France-Tanzania Business Forum, a private sector driven initiative, is serving as an important forum to foster bilateral trade between the two countries. Notably, renewed economic relations between France and Africa are being catalysed by the French-African Foundation for Growth.

This particular forum aims to help African and French businesses to share information and forge partnerships for economic exchanges. This is in line with the mission of the Tanzania Private Sector Foundation (TPSF) to pursue regional and international economic cooperation and opportunities.

In acknowledging the necessity of seeking co-benefits, Dr Jakaya Kikwete, who served as the 4th President of Tanzania from 2005 to 2015, officially visited France in January 2013 and two years later, in January 2015, he met with the then President of the French Republic Mr Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. Prior to this meeting, in March 2014, former French Minister of Foreign Trade Ms. Nicole Bricq officially visited Tanzania and an agreement for a €1.5 million grant from the Infrastructure Trust Fund was signed with the Tanzanian Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs. Other official visits to Tanzania by French dignitaries include former Minister of State for Development and Francophony Mrs Annick Girardin (in April 2015, she now serves as the Minister of Overseas France in the Emmanuel Macron Government), former Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development Jean-Marc Ayrault (August 2016) and former Minister of Environment, Energy and Marine Affairs Ms. Segolene Royal (August 2016).

During these visits, the French delegations, which included industry doyens, concluded a raft of agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoUs) in the areas of education, health, culture, environment and private sector development with the Tanzanian government and TPSF. Today’s visit by the French business confederation (MEDEF) is a testament of Tanzania’s and France’s eagerness to expand opportunities and share benefits. The emerging partnership entails France leveraging its strength in technology and manufacturing processes and Tanzania showcasing its abundant natural resources, strategic geographical position and logistical hub advantage—bringing about mutual benefit and prosperity for both countries. Beyond the trade and economic sphere, military cooperation between France and Tanzania seems to be deepening. French expertise, particularly naval prowess, is vitally beneficial to Tanzania. Indeed France’s contributions to bilateral naval exercises with Tanzania are helping to enhance capacity to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, there have been no official pronouncements or pronouncements from foreign affairs analysts which are close to the official view describing plans for any major strategic dimension of the military ties at the moment.

China as a “game changer” in Tanzania

France is reinvigorating its engagement strategy in Tanzania arguably due to the new geopolitical and geo-economic realities. In the past, China has redefined its engagement with Tanzania. To implement its energetic global commercial diplomacy, China uses state-owned enterprises (SOEs) for investment and contracting activities in Tanzania. Moreover, China’s sea-based 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative signals the deepening of its relations with Tanzania—thanks to its 720-km coastline on the Indian Ocean which makes the country a natural strategic partner for the MSR initiative.

Blessed with tremendous natural resources and with its status as the largest country in the East African Community regional bloc, Tanzania is an important destination for Chinese investments. China’s involvement in Tanzania is a key driver of Tanzania’s growth, with the country accounting for nearly 20 percent of China’s total FDI investments into Africa. Chinese investments into Tanzania continue unabated, and it is difficult for French companies to emulate Chinese SOEs that benefit from China’s unique political economy, which permits the injection of huge amounts of state capital into the SOEs.

France’s foreign policy towards Tanzania has been generally reactive to these new realities. But France is now shifting towards a more commercially-oriented engagement in Tanzania. This shift is being reinforced by the reformist French President Emmanuel Macron who has introduced reforms to stimulate entrepreneurship and by China’s strategic engagement of Tanzania in recent years.

In enhancing bilateral relations between Tanzania and France, there are opportunities to exploit and benefits to share mutually. Besides economic interests, politico-strategic interests underpin the engagement. It is important, therefore, that the interests and aspirations of the two countries are adapted to the changing geopolitical and geo-economic environment. Although the road ahead for bilateral cooperation between Tanzania and France is not without challenges and constraints, state, official and business delegation visits such as the present French business confederation’s visit to Tanzania could place bilateral relations on a higher trajectory.

Mr Kibuuka is a corporate and business lawyer and the managing partner of Isidora & Company Advocates