"France needs you," French President Emmanuel Macron has told members of the African diaspora, invited Thursday to the Elysée palace for a frank debate about Africa. He chose one of the continent's most prominent advocates to hammer home his message in the shape of Ghanaian leader, Nana Akufo-Addo.
Both leaders consider the diaspora to be a vital link between France and Africa.
"If I invited you here, it is because I want us to build together. I need you, not just to create a new vision but a new relationship with Africa," Macron told a room full of entrepreneurs, students, artists, as he extolled the virtues of French nationals with "multiple identities."
Yet this new form of black pride comes with strings attached.
"We want to work with all of Africa, and improve our partnership, and we need ambassadors. The diaspora are the best ambassadors we have," he said.
France wants to strengthen its foothold in Africa, and claw back lost territory from competitors like China. Its gateway is the diaspora: dual citizens, and French nationals of African origin, who already know the continent and have connections there.
"We cannot succeed without you," Macron said. "That is what distinguishes us from our competitors. (...) Before our relationship was unbalanced. We went to Africa merely to make money without benefitting ordinary Africans. Today, what we are building is an equal partnership with Africa."
The benefit of the diaspora Macron argued is that they are young and entrepreneurial, and come without the baggage of France's colonial past.
Many however are still held back by a negative perception of themselves, reckons Ghana's Nana Akufo-Addo.
"An Africa which continues to live the narrative of poverty, hungry children, people going across the Sahara, going in rickety boats and dying in Lampedusa to get to Europe, that Africa is not a narrative that is going to help you over here,” he said.
Following China To change the narrative, Akufo-Addo, who has declared 2019 the Year of Return for African descendants, has urged the African diaspora to follow in China's footsteps.
"We can replicate what has been done in Asia if we maintain the discipline to move our continent forward," he said, giving the example of the Chinese diaspora which has helped Beijing become a global powerhouse by investing nearly 30 billion dollars in foreign investment.
"The Chinese diaspora has been able to transform the lives of millions of Chinese, why can we not replicate that same phenomenon on our continent? I'm saying to you that when the status of Africa changes, you will see the change in your own situation here in France, you won't have to beg for anything else."
There was rapturous applause after Akufo-Addo's speech, which struck a chord with people like Awa De, a 26-year-old bank advisor.
“I was extremely impressed especially since I am thinking about going back to work in my home country Senegal," she told RFI.
"I thought that President Nana was very inspiring and his message that sometimes in France we feel less appreciated maybe our skills are valued in Africa and that we have a place if we want to contribute to the development of the continent.”
Masters and underdogs Twenty-two year old student Audrey Zagaton said she wants to see real action from President Macron, beyond grandstanding.
“He's a smart person and he knows that Africa is the future and that he must have a good relationship with Africa to benefit from its growth," she told RFI. "I am not impressed. I don't want him to play a saviour role,” she added.
Thursday's exchange came two years after Macron's encounter with students in Burkina Faso, where he first outlined his desire for a new partnership with Africa, setting up a presidential council on Africa to do just that.
There were, however, no major announcements made, other than preparations for next year's Season of Africa and a bilateral Africa France summit in June.
Selective guest list Yet the symbolism of the event was not lost on 31-year-old entrepreneur Yakare Macalou from Senegal.
“It is really great. It is actually an honour for us. This is the first time in France that we have the diaspora all gathered together. And President Macron is giving us a voice that we really need, because we have things to say,” she told RFI.
There was some criticism nonetheless that not everyone had a chance to have their say, with the guests' profiles stemming predominantly from France's elite.
In addition, no red lines were crossed and the controversial debate on the CFA franc was quickly dealt with.
Macron has promised there will be more discussions like Thursday's one. He will be under pressure to show more than symbolism.