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The ghosts that haunt France in Africa

Macron wants a reset, but unravelling the country’s tangled legacy in the continent is proving harder than it sounds

Protesters demonstrate against France and the Economic Community of West African States in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on October 4, 2022. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/ Getty

The soundtrack to my first years in Africa was one of Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly’s most popular albums Françafrique (2002). My husband and I flew into Abidjan – the main city in Ivory Coast – in 2001, travelling from Paris to the lagoonside city known as the Paris of Africa.

Ivory Coast, or Côte d’Ivoire, was our introduction to the complex legacy of French colonialism in west Africa. Even after independence in 1960, the country remained tightly bound to its former master, with French companies dominating many sectors, including the cocoa, rubber and timber trades as well as finance, hydrocarbons, water and electricity. Its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, known as Le Vieux (the Old One), had served in several ministerial positions within the French government before taking office in Ivory Coast after independence.

By the time we arrived Abidjan was in decline, thanks partly to a slump in commodity prices in the 80s, and this deterioration would accelerate after a civil war erupted in 2002 when rebels from the mainly Muslim north attempted a coup and then retreated to their northern strongholds. France sent troops to keep the two sides apart, while deep in the interior, French Foreign Legion soldiers trained their anti-tank missiles, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns into rebel territory.

Once again, France had got involved, falling back into an interventionist role that survived its official withdrawal from former colonies throughout the late 1950s and 60s.

Preparations for decolonisation began in the late 50s and continued under General Charles de Gaulle, who came to power in 1958. He was guided by Jacques Foccart, head of African affairs at the Élysée and incidentally a close friend of Houphouët-Boigny. Foccart was considered the father of “Françafrique”, a nebulous network of often dubious commercial, military and political connections that governed relations between France and Africa in the decades after decolonisation.

During these years, France often used its military strength to install leaders in return for valuable contracts, for example supporting megalomaniac Jean-Bedel Bokassa to become president of the Central African Republic in 1966.

Cementing this very one-sided relationship was the CFA franc. Created in December 1945, the currency was pegged to the franc, and later the euro. France used to require that 50% of reserves be held in the French treasury, giving it great control over the finances of African states.

In the titular track of his 2002 album, Fakoly gave his own sharply satirical take on what Françafrique meant to most Africans: “La politique France Africa, c’est du blaguer tuer,” he chanted in the chorus.

In English, it basically means France’s policy towards Africa consists of lying and killing. To be fair, Fakoly also accused the Americans – who for decades saw Africa solely through the prism of the cold war, dispensing benevolence to dodgy leaders simply because they were seen as bulwarks against communism – with the same callous policies.

Fakoly’s verses were even less forgiving: “They condone dictatorship / Just to make us hungry / They plunder our riches / To bury us alive / They’ve burned the Congo / Inflamed Angola / They’ve burned Kinshasa/They’ve burned Rwanda.”

You might argue with the individual examples, and whether France was solely to blame for these conflicts, but for years, successive French leaders saw nothing wrong with continuing their heavy-handed political, economic and military interventions on the continent.

When Emmanuel Macron was elected president in 2017, he sought to distance himself from that legacy. In a seminal speech at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso that same year, he said: “There no longer is a French policy for Africa.” Instead, he said, Africa was a continent France needed to look in the face.

“I am from a generation that does not come and tell Africa what to do or what the rule of law entails, but rather one that encourages young African women and men who want to shoulder their responsibilities, who want to do what they can to see the winds of freedom and empowerment blow, as you have done here.”

Macron, who was born in 1977, months after France’s last colony, Djibouti, achieved independence, followed this up during a 2019 visit to Ivory Coast by saying that “colonialism was a grave mistake”. It was time to turn the page on the past, he added, urging African youth to build a new partnership of friendship with France.

And this is what he says he is still trying to do. He wants to move away from the old Françafrique policy towards something new, while still preserving France’s influence on a continent where Islamist insurgents are increasingly active in countries from Niger to Mali.

But it turns out that untangling the cat’s cradle that is French involvement in its former colonies may be the work of more than one man, and more than one generation.

In recent months, relations with several African countries have been deteriorating, not least in Mali, where French troops had been helping to fight an Islamist insurgency. Consecutive coups in 2020 and 2021 brought a new junta to power in Bamako and western states accused it of relying on mercenaries from the Russian private military firm Wagner, rather than European allies. Mali retorted that France was supporting militants. France, and its allies, announced a decision to withdraw their troops in February.

The last soldiers left in August, and the centre of the French fight against insurgents in the Sahel moved to neighbouring Niger.

In a Bastille Day speech in July, Macron said he wanted a “rethink of all our (military) postures on the African continent”. It’s not just Mali, either, where things have soured. Coups in Chad (2021) and Burkina Faso (2022) have also weakened France’s position in the region, and this seems to have emboldened insurgents as well.

The alleged role of the notorious Wagner mercenaries in Mali is indicative of a shifting political landscape. Wagner mercenaries are also said to be operating in the Central African Republic and, alongside this growing Russian influence, there is increased involvement from China and Turkey, who flaunt their cheque books and “clean” colonial record (at least in Africa) as they seek contracts and contacts.

Anti-French sentiment has long simmered just below the surface in many places in west Africa. In Ivory Coast, a French journalist was shot dead by a soldier at the height of the first civil war in 2003, a terrible consequence of rampant anti-French sentiment. I was threatened once in a western village because some over-enthusiastic self-styled defenders mistook me for a French journalist. When we later moved to Senegal, the charge of being “colonialists” was often levelled at us in tense situations. Decades of exploitation are not easily forgotten.

A woman arrives with her children at Abidjan airport during an anti-French protest after France advised its nationals to leave Ivory Coast, January 2003. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty

Macron’s stated aim is to construct something new. The 2021 Africa-France summit in Montpellier was a case in point. Macron invited hundreds of young Africans – entrepreneurs, athletes and artists – but no heads of state. The idea was to provide a new foundation and to “leave behind obsolete methods and networks”.

The French president promised to invest in tech start-ups, reiterating his commitment to a young, digital Africa. But not everyone believes Macron’s efforts are entirely altruistic.

“It’s all part of the cynical twist of Macron’s version of decolonisation, which seeks to repair the old while setting back the cause of decolonisation through intervention,” wrote Frank Gerits, assistant professor in the history of international relations at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, in a piece for The Conversation.

Nonetheless, some things are changing. At the aforementioned press conference with Macron in Ivory Coast in 2019, President Alassane Ouattara announced the reform of the West African CFA franc – now used by eight mainly French-speaking former colonies – and its replacement by the eco. However, the birth of the new currency has been repeatedly delayed.

As part of his reset, Macron has also sought to smooth over recent tensions with Algeria, which was a French colony for 132 years until a bloody war of independence that claimed around 15 million Algerian lives led to independence in 1962. Last year, Macron seemed to question Algeria’s existence as a nation before the French occupation and accused the government of fomenting “hatred towards France”. Algeria’s president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, withdrew his country’s ambassador and banned French military aircraft from Algerian airspace.

During his visit to Algeria in August, Macron seemed to succeed in repairing the fractious relationship, at least for now. In a joint declaration, the leaders said they had decided to open a “new era … laying the foundation for a renewed partnership expressed through a concrete and constructive approach, focused on future projects and youth.”

In a clear indication that the new era will be different, the sign on Macron’s lectern at a press conference at the presidential palace in Algiers was in English. Tebboune has said he wants to have English taught in primary schools, in what some have seen as an attempt to gradually phase out French, which the Algerian president has described as “a spoil of war”.

French is unlikely to disappear from a nation where about a third of people speak it, but the lectern sign does seem to indicate a certain political and cultural shift.

In the end, France remains bound by the same realpolitik that sees western nations engage with Saudi Arabia, China and other oppressive regimes out of economic necessity.

Corentin Cohen, a research fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, says France remained a “privileged partner” for many African presidents because of “ongoing intelligence and military cooperation, political alliances, the possibility of military intervention, and a public development aid regime that has kept many regimes afloat.”

But, he argued in a June paper, there are signs the status quo cannot last, and not just because of negative perceptions of France in Africa. The increased diplomatic competition from new players including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are challenging France’s role as a political broker on the continent.

“The limits of Macron’s attempt at a diplomatic reset with African partners became evident from the difficulties he has faced in recalibrating the security and military aspects of France-Africa partnerships. Over the last five years, France’s approach has remained stuck in a pattern heavy on military action in countries like Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Mali, with little recourse for new foreign policy tools,” Corentin wrote. “France’s security-driven approach has ignored ongoing political and social dynamics in the Sahel. It has also kept France from doing enough to discourage the militaries of countries like Chad and Mali from overthrowing their leaders in coups. These setbacks have drawn attention to the shortcomings of French policy, but it is unclear if they have been enough to spur meaningful change.”

Corentin argues that Macron must now reimagine his diplomatic outreach to Africa.

“While Macron has demonstrated a clear desire to redress the mistakes of the past, other aspects of his policy ambitions remain mired in transactional and outmoded approaches to engagement. A hard look at what has worked and what has not is an essential step toward ensuring that France wields its considerable influence to pursue equal partnerships and mutual benefit for African countries.”

On Françafrique, Tiken Jah Fakoly exhorts his listeners to: Réveillez-vous! (Wake up!). At the very least, Macron does seem to have woken up to the need to reshape France’s relations with Africa. The blaguer tuer era may not yet be over, but it has been repeatedly challenged and found wanting.

Crafting a replacement will be difficult, but at least Macron seems to accept that it is necessary, and that this process must be rooted in the cities of Africa, rather than emanating from the corridors of the Élysée Palace in Paris.

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