On the 8th of October 2021, France organized a Montpellier conference, claiming a new approach to its relationship with Africa. The conference took place in the background of growing anti-French sentiments across several Francophone West African states. For example, the new military junta in Mali indicated their intention to seek military support from Russia, a role traditionally reserved for France.
There is abundant existing literature on French foreign policy interests in Africa. However, there is little literature that assesses African foreign policy interests in the relationship with France. Therefore, the primary purpose of this paper is to assess ‘Francophone’ West Africa’s foreign policy interests in continuing close relations with France. With a focus on the security, diplomatic, and economic interests of Western African countries, this piece seeks to argue that the current nature of the relationship between France as a single country and West Africa as a whole region is unbalanced and in essence, a detriment to regional development.
We take a traditional approach with a focus on security, diplomacy, and economics. In other words, how could Francophone West African states advance their security, diplomatic and economic interests through a relationship with France? To answer the research question, we establish Francophone West Africa’s contemporary security, diplomatic and economic interests then assess France’s ability to contribute to those interests. We argue that the current nature of the relationship does not create the environment to advance sustainable Francophone West African and French interests.
Western Africa is of particular importance to France, and due to colonial links, France is tied on many levels to many western African countries. Following the effects of the second world war on France and other European countries, Paris foreign policy especially in western Africa started taking on a primarily economic and financial outlook as opposed to the formerly dominant diplomatic and geopolitical stance. Furthermore, the new change in foreign policy outlook also saw France extend its cooperation and activities beyond so-called ‘francophone Africa’ to include the rest of the African continent, especially Southern Africa and Angola.
The shift in French foreign policy does not alter the colonial character of the relationship between concerned African countries and Paris as expressed in the fact, French military bases and operations in various African countries have carried on apace and are still considered highly strategic for the continuation of French economic and sociopolitical domination in those regions.
Looking at the concept of Francafrique, it can be observed that francophone countries have still interacted with France in neo-colonial frameworks such as biased bilateral negotiations and the continued operation of the CFA franc. As per the maintenance of diplomatic networks with African countries, the idyllic understanding of Francafrique has only served to enable scandals that involve Paris’s support for corruption of the political systems in francophone states, and on the other hand, contemporary conditions in the region have seen French adherence to the Francafrique tradition change for less. Paris’ continued history of military intervention in many African countries only goes to show that that the country will only adjust engagement strategies and will not end the interventions because its (France) imperatives are framed within arguments of national security and strategic interests.
When focusing on French foreign policy in Africa, it is vital to note that the major objectives of French policy since the 60s has been to secure its global status as a so-called ‘medium power’, secure access to critical raw materials for its energy and high-impact industries and finally, to defend its capitalist monopoly of Francophone markets. French foreign policy towards African countries is somewhat inconsistent mainly due to the dynamic nature of conditions in the concerned African countries and the French need for the continued domination of Western African economies.
From the multiple military interventions to covert support for pliable politicians, the complexities of French economic relations with Africa are critical but presented as subtle when viewed and discussed through the lens of Francafrique. An example is the reality that France’s geostrategic and economic standing globally is not possible without the undue influence the country wields over so-called Francophone Africa. Seeing that many of these African countries collaborate with France on defense and economic policies, France has been able to use multilateral frameworks to engage with African countries which has the run-off effect of obscuring the costs and risks of its actual unilateral involvement in African affairs.
France’s persistent foreign policy in Africa has not only shown that France is heavily invested in projecting its power globally but at the same time, it cannot withdraw from Africa in any meaningful way. Conversely, African leaders who benefit from the Francafrique arrangements also stifle relations and foster dependency of African countries on France. The opaque and informal connections created within the Francafrique framework have for decades provided unique possibilities for France when seeking to influence policy and trade deals. The vast raw materials and the need to secure unfettered access means that France will continue to attempt and where possible conduct military activities when the government believes that interests of any kind are threatened (Mmapitsi, 2017).
To better understand French foreign policy in Africa, it is important to note that foreign affairs are of highest concern to the president and this power was allowed for by the 1958 constitution. Although France has repeatedly claimed that there is neither the capability or desire to continue playing the gendarme of Africa, multiple French governments have maintained policies of co-opting and supporting unsavory political elements that show willingness to support French interests. Moreover, French policymakers are also proclaiming that they provide the best alternative to China, which has become a cooperative mainstay in Africa.
With this in context, France’s endeavors should be seen clearly as designed to maximize French interest in Africa, which it strangely considers its chasse gardee (literally ‘private hunting-ground’) (Mesfin, 2008). This also shows that during the 60s, the independence of former French colonies did not entail a clear break in the colonial relationship but only a restructuring. The economic subordination remained a characteristic of France-Africa relations and has led to a wide gap between formal sovereignty and effective sovereignty (Erfort, 2020).
Aside from the research that has gone into documenting French policy towards African countries, there is a wide gap in scholarly works that detail the interests of African countries as concerns their relations with France as a colonial influence in West Africa.
The French-speaking countries of west Africa have always had a history of cooperation, and studies of francophone regionalism have steadily trended towards highlighting the ambitions of francophone countries for broader integration with West Africa as demonstrated in the activities of ECOWAS. The L’ Union Economique et Monetaire Ouest Africane (UEMOA) is an example of such integration with its financial and monetary arrangements. As concerns the interests of francophone countries, it is suggested that UEMOA could serve as a ‘major mover’ for the integration efforts of the region, also the antecedent of French colonialism in the region has caused francophone states to develop a deeper sense of solidarity (Camara, 2001).
Policy and socioeconomic research is critical to understanding francophone interests vis-à-vis France relations because there is a lack in literature that points out the fact that the West African CFA franc essentially rids the francophone member states of economic sovereignty, and when combined with currency overvaluation and scarce affordable credit, the developing countries become highly dependent on access to French markets while inter-regional trade suffers at 10% as compared to the EU’s 61% (Allison, 2015). Focusing on the adverse effects of the CFA franc, the exchange rate policies and the inflexible monetary policies did not offset the effects of the early 80s recession, the French franc appreciation against a weak dollar or the unpredictable oil market. This is also observed when France consulted with the IMF in 1994 to deal with fiscal imbalances, and rising public debt of the CFA franc zone, a move that resulted in the devaluation of the CFA franc by 50% (Boogaerde & Tsangarides, 2005).
Within west Africa, Nigeria has been a leading critic of the unilateral move to adopt the ‘eco’ monetary currency which is a rebrand of the CFA franc. Just as Nigeria has since identified France as the biggest threat to regional goals, France on the other hand, being a former regional colonial power perceives Nigeria to be the topmost threat to its own influence in west Africa (Rosemary, 2003). Clearly, a financial policy move that gives France a disproportionate amount of influence over the ECOWAS is resisted by countries like Nigeria who do not wish to give up currency sovereignty in exchange for another currency backed and managed by France (Ibrahim, 2020).
The socioeconomic interests of francophone countries are routinely ignored and/or subverted when one considers such speeches as given in 2007 by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy in Senegal where he is quoted as saying, that Africa’s problem came from the fact that “African man has not entered history enough”, a statement that caused outrage across the continent and was responded to by respected African intellectuals who echoed that France remains a problem for the continent, with Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr saying “France must be taken out of the monetary cooperation agreements” (Yattioui, 2020).
On the security aspect of France-Africa relations, the French government recently made the decision to draw down forces in its largest overseas military operation Operation Barkhane which has so far been touted as France’s premier effort to combat terrorism. The reality being that violent extremist activities in the region have not reduced in the eight years of French military escapades with the main ‘ripple effect’ of the combatants reorganizing elsewhere according to Heni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), an NGO tracking political violence globally. Following the near-decade of counter-terror operations, reporting has shown that extremists’ attacks have spread southward from large swathes of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso with growing fatalities each year, with an estimated 2,440 civilians killed in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in 2020 (Barbero, 2021).
On the global stage, with China and its heavy investments across the continent, as well as Russia received increasing local support as a potential security partner in Mali, France is in a situation where francophone countries now have clear alternatives for diplomatic, security, and socioeconomic engagements, a status quo that signifies a growing fatigue for French cooperation in the region (ibid).
Given the dynamic context with the European Union, China, and other partners such as Turkey, France-Africa relations can be considered from four different angles; firstly, as far as economic relations are concerned, French economic interests are losing ground following criticisms from local nongovernmental organizations, monopolistic behavior, and corruption scandals (AFP, 2018). Secondly, the growing consensus around the fact that the military cooperation regimes simultaneously support and undermine economic relations. Thirdly, that France’ persistent FrancAfrique paradigm is still a cornerstone of its soft power and influence in west and central Africa. Fourthly, France in a bid to change nature of relations between francophone Africa has invested more in development aid programs and diplomatic commitments (Brookings Institute, 2019).
While the relations with francophone Africa have been driven by military and business interests, France no longer has the wherewithal to maintain its African ambitions. Furthermore, France’s inability to actively compete with new players in the region, is an indicator that the loss of face positive public perception is because of mounting policy contradictions and structural failures in combination with renewed African fervor for economic and diplomatic alternatives (Mbembe, 2020).
The current conditions play heavily into France’s recent strategy of considering francophone economic or security interests as demonstrated by the France-Africa summit whose moto is ‘reinventing this relationship’, an event believed by scholars to have little effect on changing relations between the concerned entities, according to reporting by AfricaNews (AfricaNews, 2021).
We have shown that Francophone West Africa and France have common foreign policy objectives and a potentially mutually beneficial relationship. However, the current structure and approach of the relationship inhibit the exploitation of the relationship’s full potential. Therefore, a mutually enriching relationship requires significant reforms to the structure and process of Francophone West Africa’s relationship with France.
Otobong Inieke is an independent researcher based in Nigeria. He writes articles on geopolitics and international affairs seeking to explore the intricate connections between regions of the world especially in relation to Africa. Otobong also publishes writings about the impact of technology on digital privacy. A trained Information Technology professional, and more information on his work can be found at https://devinieke.com.ng
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