President Emmanuel Macron visited Djibouti and Ethiopia on Tuesday, promising "respectful" partnerships in the face of growing regional indebtedness to China, which is fast expanding its foothold in the continent.
Looking to strengthen economic, military and cultural ties in East Africa, Macron announced a new defence deal with Ethiopia and is expected to seal a major transport contract in Kenya on Wednesday.
Macron described Djibouti, the last colony to gain independence from France -- in 1977 -- as a "historical partner and strategic ally".
Both Paris and Beijing -- as well as Japan and the United States -- have military bases in Djibouti due to its strategic location along a key shipping lane leading to the Suez Canal.
Its geographic importance in the Horn of Africa region forms the foundation of Djibouti's hopes of becoming a major trading hub.
Two years ago, East Africa's smallest country inaugurated its newest and biggest port -- part of an infrastructure expansion, partly funded by China, that includes three other ports and a railroad to the capital of landlocked Ethiopia.
Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh's administration hopes to turn the country into a "new Dubai" competing for business with overcrowded African ports such as Mombasa in Kenya.
Sandwiched between Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, tiny Djibouti is a crucial part of Beijing's "Belt and Road" global infrastructure initiative along what has been dubbed the "Maritime Silk Road".
It allows China to reach Africa and Europe via the Indian Ocean.
The project has seen Beijing lend developing countries in Asia and Africa huge amounts of money to develop infrastructure and ease trade.
But the International Monetary Fund has sounded the alarm over an increase of Djibouti's public debt from 50 percent of GDP in 2014 to 85 percent in 2017.
The US-based China Africa Research Initiative in 2017 estimated Djibouti's debt to China at some $1.3 billion.
"I would not want international investments to weaken the sovereignty of our partners," Macron said Tuesday, in a reference to China's growing African presence.
"French companies are able to offer a respectful partnership," the president added.
Guelleh, who described himself as "a great friend of China" when he visited President Xi Jinping in 2017, told Macron: "There are opportunities for French companies, particularly in the field of infrastructure.
"Our country is open, I have not lost hope that France can boost its investments in Djibouti."
Later Tuesday, Macron visited the remote Ethiopian town of Lalibela with its renowned 13th-century church complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
He promised to "finance and assist the work with the Ethiopians to restore these churches", threatened by erosion and temporarily covered by vast metal-and-tarpaulin structures much hated by locals.
Macron added he believed in a model of "cultural diplomacy" made of "balanced partnerships".
At a press conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Macron also announced a defence agreement in which France will loan 85 million euros ($96 million) to Ethiopia to support the establishment of a navy for the landlocked country.
Macron is scheduled to attend a state dinner in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. On Wednesday, he will meet leaders of the African Union before making the first-ever trip to Kenya by a French president.
On Thursday, he will attend the One Planet Summit on reversing climate change in the capital Nairobi.
He is also expected to head to Nairobi Central Railway Station to announce contracts worth around three billion euros to extend a line to the capital's airport.
During his visit to East Africa on Tuesday, Rwanda invited Macron to attend the 25th anniversary of the country's 1994 genocide that killed some 800,000 of its citizens.
Rwandan authorities have long accused France of complicity in the massacre. Macron has not indicated whether he will attend the event on April 7 in the capital Kigali.
Lalibela, Ethiopia | AFP