The Growing Dissatisfaction with France’s Presence in West Africa
Since his re-election in 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron has been juggling a series of ongoing crises, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine and recent protests against France’s proposed Pension Reform Bill. Yet, one of the longest-looming challenges President Macron continues to face is France’s ongoing insecurity regarding its foreign policy towards, and presence in, Africa.
In recent years, France’s former colonies in West and Central Africa, now independent nations, have indicated a continuing desire to move away from the historically close relationship they have shared with their former imperialist power.
The Decline of France’s Power in the Region
In 2019, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), comprised of fifteen African nations, flagged their readiness to adopt a new regional currency called the eco in 2027. This would replace usage of the West African CFA franc, the current regional currency created by Charles de Gaulle in 1945, which has been criticised as ‘paternalistic’ due to the power it grants France regarding matters such as devaluation and foreign currency reserves.
In February 2022, Macron announced that France would end its military presence in Mali, whom it had been helping combat a jihadist insurgency since 2013, citing ‘multiple obstructions’ to the success of the mission, including the hostility of the nation’s military junta government.
Following suit in January 2023, Burkina Faso also requested French troops leave their nation, with government spokesperson Jean-Emmanuel Ouedraogo telling reporters the nation’s military wanted ‘to be the prime actors in the recapture of our territory’. Although it could be argued that France severing ties with two undemocratic juntas is necessary, the withdrawal of troops from these two nations has placed a heavy strain on the monopoly Paris held on anti-terrorism efforts in the Sahel region, opening the door for Russian mercenaries to offer an alternative.
Adding further to France’s pressure, the Commonwealth of Nations announced in July of 2022 that it would welcome two new member states, Togo and Gabon. Both of these small West African nations have always been viewed as firmly within France’s sphere of influence, but their engagement with the Commonwealth indicates a desire to expand their diplomatic connections beyond their traditional Francophone allies.
All of these developments paint a greater picture of the decline of France’s soft and hard power in the region and highlight a primary issue with France’s traditional foreign policy towards Africa. It comes with too much control and not enough freedom or growth.
The Francafrique Policy
Francafrique was the term given to France’s sphere of influence over West and Central Africa, created in the Cold War to keep the newly independent colonies connected to Paris. The French government saw their hegemony in Africa as the key to keeping France a global power and went about cementing their position by creating personal ties between French government officials and African leaders, while also providing security forces to combat potential threats and reinforcing cultural links through institutions like the Organisation Internationale de la Franciophonie (OIF). This policy led the French government to back a number of ‘friendly’ dictators, including the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko.
However, with a new global landscape and a more politically literate generation of young Africans, who are skeptical of the supposed good France has done for their nations, increasing pressure has been placed on Paris to change their African approach, with intervention and control no longer the order of the day. This prompted Macron to declare that ‘the age of Francafrique is well over’ while visiting Gabon in March. But Macron is not the first French President to make this declaration and would not be the first to break it. Knowledge of this prompted a combative tone to dominate a press conference held between Macron and President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Felix Tshisekedi. While President Tshisekedi urged France to ‘begin to respect us and see us in a different way’, Macron bluntly maintained that the DRC’s struggles, including ongoing tensions with neighbouring Rwanda, are ‘not France’s fault’.
Solutions to France’s Waning Presence
So with France’s traditional African allies baying for more autonomy within their relationship, it is essential that Macron finds a healthy compromise between securing his nation’s strategic interests while winning goodwill, not just from African leaders, but their citizens alike.
One way that France could go about securing more trust from its African allies is through infrastructure investment. West Africa nations, such as Chad, Niger and Guinea-Bissau, rank among some of the worst scores for infrastructure development in Africa, leaving a large hole in their potential to engage in international dialogue and develop their essential industries. West Africa’s need for ports, railroads and highways has not been lost on China, who has been engaging with the region through comprehensive economic engagement initiatives and have signed all of Africa up to the Belt and Road Initiative. However, Belt and Road funding dropped in the region during 2022, creating an opportunity for France to make their case as a more stable and trustworthy development partner. Macron could demonstrate that France does not simply meddle in Africa for their own benefit, but genuinely thinks about how the region can develop and mature.
Furthermore, reconciliation efforts between France and West Africa will have to be made. Macron is something of a hard liner when it comes to apologies, having ruled out giving one to Algeria as recent as January of this year. But in acknowledging that a change in policy towards Africa must be made, it will stand that there were flaws with the era of Francafrique. As African societies have become more politically conscious, they are acutely aware of how France interfered with their political processes in the past. If Macron wants to secure France’s place within the region, it will be necessary to win over the opinion of the public, who want the assurance that a renewed French foreign policy will be cooperative rather than exploitative.
Lachlan Forster is a young writer studying at the University of Melbourne, majoring in International Relations and History. Lachlan is a New Colombo Plan Scholar, studying in Singapore and Malaysia. He has been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Journal of History and Farrago Student Magazine.