Paris has the experience, knowledge, opportunities and readiness to take action in Africa.
While the French were ending their discussion about depressing economic figures and the rise of the Far Right, François Hollande had already put France on the map of Africa again without much fuss.
In a little more than a year, President Hollande has deployed French troops to Mali to drive back the jihadist advance, and to the Central African Republic to avert genocide. The burden of the past is, however, persistent and there is once again speculation about the return of dirty African politics characteristic of the colonial era.
What is modern French African policy like? What role could Paris play on the Dark Continent in the 21st century?
On the Origins of Françafrique
In order to understand why every topic related to Africa creates agitation and tension in France even today, 50 years after its colonies gained independence, we need to have a quick look at the past.
The first President of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, laid the foundation for the colonies’ de facto dependence on France. Most countries signed bilateral agreements with their former mother country, which included various clauses about military cooperation. To control the new system, Jacques Foccart, the éminence grise of de Gaulle’s African policy, created a widespread network of influence that conjoined politics, economy, and the army.
One of the important driving engines of the policy was de Gaulle’s politique de grandeur, which was aimed to make France a strong country with an independent foreign policy. A network of obedient “client countries” added significance to France on the international stage and enabled it (at least seemingly) to maintain the status of a world power. Another important aspect was access to strategic and valuable natural resources, which were necessary for modernising the country and securing economic growth. Also, French political parties were partly financed through shady businesses and illegal schemes. In addition, Africa was a Cold War battlefield in the ongoing fight to restrict the spread of communism.
In order to maintain French influence in the former colonies, only heads of state friendly to France were appointed. If necessary, they were kept in power or their opponents were suppressed with military measures; “unsuitable” people were overthrown. The network of French military forces in Africa was an important part of the system. Between 1962 and 1995, there were 19 French military interventions in the internal affairs of African countries. It is said that Foccart had appeals for French military intervention ready in his drawer, signed by different African heads of state with only the dates missing. In return for their obedience, the friendly heads of state were able use the country’s purse to their liking and enjoy a long period in office.
Regardless of who was in power in France, the Françafrique system worked for decades. Scandals connected to it continue to emerge to this day. One of the biggest was related to the French national oil company Elf Aquitaine. In 1994 an extensive system of corruption was revealed, which, among other things, included arms dealing and illegal funding of political parties, and involved economic and political leaders from France and Africa.
After the end of the Cold War, French African policy gradually began to change. Limited resources presented one set of restrictions, the unification of Europe demanded more attention from France, and public opinion became more sensitive about the ways in which Françafrique was implemented. The Rwanda genocide was an important milestone, with France accused of intervening on the side of the regime. The episode continues to cast a shadow on relations between the two countries.
The Bases Policy
Under Lionel Jospin’s government (1997–2002), France began to distance itself from Africa; Nicolas Sarkozy, the first French President with no personal relations with Africa, closed the African bureau in the Elysée Palace, started to review the defence cooperation agreements, and reduced the number of French military bases. However, this process has now been halted due to new dangers, especially terrorism.
France’s 2013 White Paper on defence and national security bears the stamp of Mali. Reducing the French army’s global footprint was supposed to be an important way to cut costs in a difficult economic situation but it was eventually decided to maintain current levels. Operations Serval in Mali and Sangaris in the Central African Republic (CAR) could not have been carried out as quickly and effectively without French troops deployed to African bases. From from an operational perspective these bases hold a considerable efficiency factors: rapid reaction since part of the military force is already near the areas of conflict; logistical measures that add flexibility, initiative and freedom of action to the French army; and training bases that have enabled French soldiers to adjust to different conditions in Africa.
The location of military strongholds also clearly reflects France’s interests. In West Africa, the bases surround the Gulf of Guinea, through which a large part of Africa’s oil and natural resources is transported despite ongoing difficulties with piracy; the region is also home to most French expatriates in Africa. Other strongholds in Djibouti, the United Arab Emirates, and Réunion enable the seaways off the Horn of Africa to be controlled.
In addition to its unique practical utility, this network gives France diplomatic influence as well. From a political viewpoint, however, it is an opaque legacy of questionable moral value dating back to the colonial era. Moreover, it takes a significant amount of taxpayers’ money to maintain these bases. Pre-deployed troops (totalling about 6,500 personnel,) with an additional contingent of 2,000 “sovereignty forces” in French overseas territories, cost €400 million a year. The €1 billion annual cost of foreign missions—most of which take place in Africa—must be added to this. On top of everything, France’s active foreign policy and military interventions make it an attractive target for terrorists.
Modernising the current military structure is one of the main elements of French African policy. The new approach proposed by Hollande focuses on the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region (in other words, France’s response to threats that affect all countries in the area). The aim is to discard the vast and visible presence of the colonial era and build up a new structure based on a greater number of small strongholds to enable a faster reaction to threats. In addition, emphasis is placed on multilateral cooperation with the region’s own military forces and with the US.
A new type of synergy and partnership has evolved between France and the US in Africa. American and French soldiers discreetly share the same intelligence and surveillance systems in Niger and Mauritania—the US is training the French on its drones, while the French bring their experience of interpreting the data collected.
Although there is talk of open communication and of a new strategic partnership with African countries, certain aspects of the current policy still raise the question of how far France is actually willing to go.
For example, the system of pre-deployed troops is not very transparent. The contingent in N’Djamena (Chad) is formally an active foreign military operation, a status it has held since being established in 1986. The base in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) was initially permanent, then became merely contingent, and is now permanent once again. The absence of exact definitions in defence cooperation agreements leaves room for manoeuvre and, despite emphasising multilateralism, France maintains the right to act independently.
Whose Business is Africa?
Africa is the poorest continent in the world. It presents a potentially explosive state of affairs right on Europe’s doorstep. But whose “business” is Africa? The US is trying to shift the centre of its interests to Asia, but Europe and the Middle East still demand American attention. China’s presence in Africa is increasing, but this is expressed more through substantial business contracts rather than the wish to take responsibility for anything. Russia is too busy terrorising its close neighbours. The Europeans are expected to take more responsibility and share the burden, but they are often tied up gazing at their own navel.
One of the lessons learned from the operations in Mali and the CAR is that, although African countries wish to take part in military missions, they lack the capability to plan operations and carry them out. A chronic shortage of resources is another issue. All in all, the much-discussed “African solutions to African problems” will still be a while in coming.
In addition, there is the issue of France’s status, having been described as that of a “carnivore in a vegetarian Europe”.1 France is one of the few European countries that still has a full array of military capabilities, from nuclear deterrence and aircraft carriers to intelligence and special forces. In addition, there is a relative political and public consensus on using these capabilities—France has taken part in the largest missions organised by NATO (Afghanistan, Kosovo), the EU, (Mali, CAR, anti-piracy operations off Somalia) and the UN (Lebanon).
Nevertheless, not everyone thinks that Africa should be among France’s priorities. Critics say that its future economic and geostrategic interests lie instead in Asia. Among other things, Sarkozy’s 2008 White Paper on defence and national security defined the Persian Gulf and South Asia as priority areas.
Despite that, last year, after a long time, Africa was the subject of heightened attention in France. François Hollande was the only Western head of state to participate in celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the African Union. In addition, more than 50 African leaders were invited to Paris by Hollande to discuss security matters and the promotion of economic relations. Armies from several African countries were represented at the Bastille Day Parade.
It is time to stop intimidation with skeletons from the past and turn Africa into an advantage for France. France has the experience, knowledge, opportunities and readiness to take action. A policy that is transparent, multilateral, beneficial to all sides and directed to the future should be built on these foundations. Were the current capabilities to be eliminated, this would create a gap not only for France but also for Europe as a whole. There should be cooperation with other European countries in order to avoid accusations of protecting the special interests of a former coloniser. However, here the responsibility arises also for us (and other allies) to contribute and not just wait for someone else to deal with the problems in Europe’s vicinity.
With its current forceful foreign and defence policies, which include the African policy currently being defined, France is fulfilling General de Gaulle’s strategic goal—a balanced trilateral security partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom. If a little while ago the main reason for discussing France was to complain about its constant strikes and weak economy, then today it is to inquire where Paris stands on this or that international issue. France is still a player in the global league.
1 Camille Grand, “France is Now America’s Preferred Partner in Africa and the Sahel” – The World Today, Volume 69, Number 8/9, October 2013.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.