(Photo by Christophe Licoppe via Wikimedia Commons)
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Through extensive and often varied methods of colonization, France once ruled much of North, West, Central and Eastern Africa. Its empire covered 20 current African nations and stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean. Direct French imperialism in Africa officially ended in 1962 after more than 300 years following the creation of Charles De Gaulles’s Fifth Republic in 1958. Following the Algerian War for Independence of 1954-1962, the stage was set for colonized nations to declare and request their independence in Paris.
Yet, 60 years later, France still holds a lot of influence. Aided by a combination of coups across Francophone Africa, France’s position and influence have met considerable hostility and challenges in recent years.
Riots, political movements, and severing long-standing military and economic ties between France and several African countries have presented a tipping point in France’s African policy objectives. It forced the hand of French President Emmanuel Macron, who, on a visit to Burkina Faso in 2023, announced a new and improved African policy — a final attempt to maintain France’s extensive links with its ex-Africa colonies.
Over the past decade, anti-French sentiment has deepened and grown more evident across several African countries formerly colonized by France. While this view is not a new development, with anti-French movements having a long history since the era of France’s African colonial endeavours, it has accelerated and manifested more violently in recent years.
Protests are now turning increasingly violent, with examples ranging from the ransacking of French-owned businesses in Dakar in March 2021 to the attacks in 2022 on the French embassy in Ouagadougou and the French Institute in Bobo-Dioulasso. The anti-French sentiment is not, however, confined to the general public; governments are now following suit. Take, for instance, the suspension of France’s RFI radio in December 2023 or Mali’s ban on the presence and activity of French-funded NGOs in October 2023. The most concerning example does, however, come from the Malian government, which demanded the withdrawal of French troops to be replaced by Wagner group mercenaries earlier this year. The anti-French sentiment, commonplace in its ex-colonies public, has now spread to their governments.
The origins of this increase in anti-French sentiment are unclear; however, its acceleration appears to stem from the failure of the French military in their actions across the Sahel. Several African countries had hoped that the engagement of France’s army in security operations would prevent the spread of terrorism, dubbed Operation Barkhane. Yet, France has largely failed in achieving this aim.
One only has to look towards the Sahel to provide context as to why France’s Africa policy is relevant to world politics today. The Sahel, located beneath the Sahara and stretching across Africa, comes from the Arabic word “Sahil,” meaning “coast” or “shore.” The Sahel has, however, in the past three years, become the epicentre for global terrorism and has held the stage for eight successful coups. While the Sahel contains some of the world’s most politically unstable, economically underdeveloped, and environmentally threatened countries, these countries have one thing in common: they were part of the French colonial empire. Therefore, their political collapse and the regular evolution of the status quo through political coups present a challenge to maintaining French influence and securing French interests in the region.
From a global context, the rise of Sahel-based terrorism is deeply concerning. 43% of global terror deaths now come from the Sahel region, a statistic which is increasing yearly. Following the deaths of 13 French troops in 2019 after a helicopter crash during a mission in Mali, the situation has continued to escalate, leading to the BBC’s Africa reporter Paul Melly characterizing the terrorism situation in the Sahel as a “festering wound.” President Macron’s announcement at the 2022 EU-AU February summit in Brussels of the complete withdrawal of French troops — following Mali’s employment of the Wagner Group in 2022 — may also worsen the situation.
Old Policy vs. New Policy
In 2017, in a speech to students in Burkina Faso, President Macron announced plans to depart from the historical, neo-colonial, old African policy widely referred to as Francafrique and modernize France’s relationship with its old colonies. Francafrique is broadly associated with the continuation of colonial practices through the granting of independence. Boubacar Boris Diop, a Senegalese political novelist, uses the phrase “France’s dogged refusal to decolonize.”
The principles of this policy are extensive and closely controlled economic ties by France, particularly the CFA Franc, heavy French military and security presence, extensive French social exports, and imbalanced trade deals. In essence, as Diop puts it, “the continuous subjugation of supposedly sovereign African states Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, to name a few — by their former colonial master, in this case France.”
Since 2017, France has slowly made minor efforts to adapt its historical policy to reflect the modern-day reality more closely. However, these changes were minimal. Following the failure of French military forces in the Sahel and increased anti-French sentiment, on a trip to several African nations at the start of 2023, Macron announced more comprehensive changes to France’s Africa policy.
During a speech at the Elysee Palace, Macron announced that the new French posture would move away from failing military intervention and instead towards “deep humility.” Accompanying this deep humility would be a noticeable reduction and reorganization of France’s military presence across the region, the intensification of economic relations, increased linguistic and cultural exchange, and increased investment in education across the continent. The policy also expanded another previous policy to return stolen artifacts.
The new policy differs from Francafrique primarily in how France engages with African countries they formerly colonized; rather than talking down to them, it will treat and engage them as equals. The new policy also represents a structural change in focus, actively acknowledging and engaging with colonial legacies rather than ignoring them. While this policy is a step in the right direction, it does not effectively address the economic and neo-colonial influences which France still possesses over several African countries. The CFA Franc is still under French control, and economic ties are expanding further. The policy still feels absent of the fact that these countries are sovereign and that engagement is reciprocal.
Neo-Colonial Future and the CFA Franc
The reality is that the present-day and future of African countries formerly colonized by France are still heavily influenced by France. The extensive social ties formed through decades of immigration and French assimilation policies have been aided by substantial economic and military assistance across Francophone Africa. It is, however, the CFA Franc which provides the most tangible example of neo-colonialism in the modern day.
Created in December of 1945, the CFA Franc was a currency developed for use across many of the French colonies. Backed by the French central bank, the value of the CFA Franc is tied intimately to the French economy and economic systems. Fixed to the value of the Euro, the exchange rate between the Franc and the Euro remains relatively constant, which helps improve confidence in markets and a financial system which reinforces a dependency culture.
The CFA Franc helps ensure greater market certainty for importers and exporters, meaning that when businesses look for goods, the price of French goods remains constant and appears more attractive. Inflation also remains low, meaning former colonies are encouraged to look towards France for trade further. The countries do, however, have their domestic currencies. The CFA Franc is used more significantly within cross-border trade, while domestic currencies are used more predominantly within the limits of their domestic economy. In some regards, the economic influence that France can exert on its former colonies through the CFA Franc has prevented them from developing complete autonomy, and this is why many commentators look towards the Franc as a form of neo-colonialism.
Research conducted by the Jamestown Foundation has associated Frances’s military presence and allocation of troops in a similar neocolonialist light through the allocation of troops. Over 12,000 French troops have been deployed across 9 African countries, with the largest bases in Djibouti and Senegal, both former French colonies. Maintaining this military presence and being responsible for varying degrees of security for these countries has once again enforced a dependency culture.
France’s military presence in Africa, while overwhelmingly focused on peace-keeping and countering the rise of extremist Al-Quada and Islamic State-linked terrorist groups in the Sahel region, has been criticized for its effectiveness and cost. As a result, several French military missions, including the one to Mali, have been scaled back and even withdrawn completely. As a result, these countries were forced to employ private military contractors, such as the Wagner Group, because France had left its military drastically underprepared.
The Macron Effect
Emmanuel Macron, France’s two-term president, has negatively affected relations with several African countries. While it may be true that in France, his confidence, charisma, and personality are factors which have led to his election and political success, it is also true that this type of strong-man leadership can often be interpreted, fairly or not, as arrogance.
In conducting and engaging in diplomacy with countries France previously colonized, this seemingly arrogant approach neglects the importance and sensitivity of France’s historical legacies. In many ways, it has helped create and reinforce the perspective of a condescending relationship — one built upon the historical premise of French superiority (as a colonial power) and a country which, through French aid and military assistance, supports French superiority in current times.
While adopting the New Africa policy emphasizes France’s new sensitive approach to former colony relations, Macron still represents an incompatible face for these relationships — one that is not overly palatable in a historically understanding and apologetic world order.
Africa’s General Move Away From Imperialist Powers
All these factors discussed in this article collectively ask whether the French position is viable. Does France’s desire to be tied closely, to have influence, and to create a shared future with African countries represent or understand the post-colonial reality in Africa?
Instead, the modern political environment has arguably encouraged African countries to distance themselves from their former European colonists. The deployment of Wagner mercenaries in Mali to many African countries supporting Russia in the Ukraine war suggests an unlikely future for French-African relations. More than ever, African countries are rejecting any notion of colonial influence. As it associates the liberal West with colonialism, aligning themselves with former colonial powers is becoming less and less of an option.
Although France’s return of stolen artifacts and the new direction of their Africa policy is a positive change, these actions feel inherently too little too late. Africa no longer relies upon its former colonizers, and for France, the challenges to French interests across Francophone Africa seem primarily out of their control.
Edited by Ashley Renz