France’s intricate network of political, military, economic and cultural ties on the continent has unravelled, writes Professor Adekeye Adebajo.
Former French president François Mitterrand noted prophetically in 1957: “Without Africa, France will no longer have a history in the 21st century.”
For the past six decades an intricate network of political, military, economic and cultural ties — known as Françafrique — have been used to promote what French leaders regarded as a politique de grandeur. All French presidents from Charles de Gaulle to Emmauel Macron have continued this neocolonial Africa policy.
French co-opérants have historically provided technical assistance to African ministries, sometimes overruling ministers. And in a clearly corrupt system, African leaders funded the political campaigns of French political parties.
For nearly three decades, highly personalised relations with African leaders were entrusted to Jacques Foccart, an éminence grise and master of the secret du roi (the king’s secret), who established his infamous réseaux africains: clandestine networks of spooks and soldiers, and murderers and mercenaries.
During the Cold War Washington considered France’s role to be useful in keeping the Soviet bear out of Africa. For six decades the French gendarme acted like a pyromaniac fireman, intervening more than 50 times in Africa. In the franc zone, 13 francophone African states tied their CFA franc to the French franc, with the French treasury holding all their foreign reserves.
French industrial giants such as CFAO, SCOA, Elf Aquitaine and Bouygues continued to monopolise markets they had cornered during the colonial era. France’s “co-operation agreements” gave it priority access to Africa’s strategic minerals: Gabon and Niger provided Paris with 100% of its uranium, Guinea 90% of its bauxite, and Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon 70% of its oil.
With the end of the Cold War the idea of an exclusive French chasse gardée (private hunting ground) in Africa came under increasing challenge. French policy reversals left its Africa policy in disarray: it trained and armed Rwandan génocidaires, and supported Zaire’s sinking Mobutu Sese Seko long after he had passed his sell-by date.
By 1990 pro-democracy demonstrations in Benin, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Niger forced many francophone states to adopt various forms of multiparty democracy. But France continued to apply democracy inconsistently, sanctioning sham elections and resuming aid to fraudulent regimes.
Paris’ unilateral 50% devaluation of the CFA franc in 1994 further dealt a devastating blow to its Africa policy. In recent times anti-French protests have erupted in Bangui, Bamako, Ouagadougou, Conakry, N’Djamena, Dakar and Abidjan.
President Emmanuel Macron has continued to promote these cosy and corrupt relationships despite rhetorical pretensions of a new approach. He has defended the Déby family autocracy in Chad, backed Paul Biya’s 41-year misrule in Cameroon, and meddled in Libya on the side of warlord, Gen Khalifa Haftar.
Perhaps nothing better symbolises the death of Françafrique than the spectacular collapse of France’s failed decade-long counterterrorism war in the Sahel. Paris — already expelled from its military base in Mali in 2022 — has recently been asked by putschists in Niger to withdraw its 1,500 troops from the country.
The French president has spoken out of both sides of his mouth in condoning the coup in Chad in 2021 and, only a few weeks later, condemning the military putsch in Mali. More recently, he excoriated putschists in Niger, while embracing soldiers in Gabon.
France has not been in the front ranks of global power for eight decades. Its seat on the UN Security Council is anachronistic. It is the world’s seventh largest economy, behind India. Even within the EU it is clear that Germany is the continent’s leading power. Paris can no longer afford its politique de grandeur in Africa, and has increasingly sought to use the UN and the EU to subsidise its African adventures.
However, French intervention on the continent has now become a costly relic of a bygone age of imperial delusion. Françafrique is finally dead. It is time to give it a decent burial.