Africa-France Summit, Bamako, Mali, 14 January 2017. (Source: Government of Rwanda)

President Emmanuel Macron warned on Sunday that France would withdraw troops from Mali if Islamist influence continues to grow following the country’s recent coup — the second in nine months and the third in nine years. French soldiers first arrived in Mali in 2013 to help the government drive back militants who had taken control of vast portions of the country, including the ancient city of Timbuktu. France’s military presence has since expanded to 5,100 troops in five West African countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger — as part of an intervention dubbed Operation Barkhane. But France is more than just a security partner to African nations — its presence on the continent is deeply rooted in its history as a colonial power, and encompasses political, economic, cultural, and military ties that manifest unequal balances of power even today.

French colonialism in Africa

Present on the West African coast as early as 1659, French expansion into the continent’s interior accelerated beginning in the latter half of the 19th century. At the 1884–85 Berlin Conference in which European powers partitioned Africa among themselves, France came away with much of West and Central Africa. Unlike the British, France utilized a policy of direct rule, which displaced indigenous societal structures with its own administrative systems. Surpassed in brutality arguably only by the Belgians, the French were a particularly harsh imperial power in that they required their colonies to pay for themselves, fostering a political and economic system in which the extraction of natural resources was incentivized above all else.

To increase the labor force, French authorities encouraged migration to cotton and groundnut growing regions, and imposed taxes to induce participation in the wage economy. When voluntary measures were not enough, forced labor (courvee) and imprisonment (indigenant) were used to boost production and stamp out incipient resistance. Although slavery was technically illegal, forms of involuntary servitude were a mainstay of the colonial system until the late 1940s. The French mission in Africa was almost purely commercial, with little effort made to improve the lives of indigenous Africans beyond minimal health and educational services. Unlike in British colonies, no significant African middle class ever emerged in French West Africa, despite the fact that the African colonies were considered part of metropolitan France.

France and post-independence Africa

By 1960, all of France’s colonies in West and Central Africa gained their independence. Unlike in Vietnam, these transitions were largely peaceful, and France consequently remained close with its former African colonies. However, these relationships were based, at least in part, on lingering coercion. When Guinea, the first French colony to gain independence in 1958, voted resoundingly (95%) against joining the CFA monetary union, President Charles de Gaulle’s government abruptly pulled out more than 4,000 civil servants, teachers, doctors, and other professionals. Having been instructed to destroy everything on their way out, the exiting French left a vindictive wake of burned books, demolished buildings, and ruined agricultural technology in what commentators described as “un divorce sans pension alimentaire” — a divorce with no alimony. When France’s 14 other colonies gained independence two years later, they knew what the consequences would be if they attempted to chart their own path.

In the post-independence period, France intensified its relations with its former colonies. Its sphere of influence, known as “Françafrique,” was defined not only by strong economic, political, and military ties, but by a murky and unaccountable “family” style of doing business. The extractive economic systems put in place during the colonial period lingered, barely modified, with much of francophone Africa still providing natural resources for France’s exclusive use, and France still serving as its former colonies’ main supplier of manufactured goods. In Senegal, for instance, French companies still control virtually the entire infrastructure sector, including the harbors, highways, train system, and oil industry.

France cemented — and still cements — its influence through the financial and military support of strongmen leaders willing to maintain the neocolonial order. France staunchly backed dictators like the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (at the time known as Zaire) Mobutu Sese Seko, Togo’s Gnassingbé Eyadéma, and Chad’s Hissène Habré and Idriss Déby, among many others. Perhaps most shamefully, France actively supported Juvénal Habyarimana’s Hutu-led Rwandan government in fighting the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and provided arms and training to the Interahamwe militia force that later carried out the Rwandan genocide. President Macron last week acknowledged France’s “responsibility” for its role in the 1994 genocide, but stopped short of apologizing.

Since 1960, the French military has intervened over 50 times in Africa. Even operations that are ostensibly anti-terror missions have taken on a patently political role, with Operation Barkhane warplanes being used in 2019 to save Chadian President Déby from a coup attempt. France’s shadow over Africa, however, falls equally long in the economic realm. Fourteen African countries currently use the CFA franc, a currency pegged to the euro (previously the franc). While this arrangement may offer some macroeconomic stability from inflation, it nevertheless makes monetary planning all but impossible for the developing countries that use it. Moreover, France requires countries using the CFA franc to store half of their currency reserves with the Banque de France, which in practice results in African countries channeling more money to France than they receive in aid.

What does the future hold for the Francophonie?

France’s hold over its African sphere of influence may be waning. Since the end of the Cold War, the political calculations that once justified Western support for harsh authoritarian regimes no longer hold water internationally, weakening France’s ability to justify its support for strongman leaders like Idriss Déby (and now his son Mahamat). President Macron’s recent repentant speech in Rwanda indicates a recognition of France’s need to make amends for its colonial past. However, quasi-apologies and restitution of artwork will not be enough if France is unwilling to also reform the exploitative political and economic systems it continues to reinforce and benefit from. As the recent protests in Senegal, Chad, and Mali indicate, many Africans are losing patience with the neocolonial status quo.

While France is still the dominant power in francophone Africa, it is no longer without competitors. As the example of Rwanda — which under President Paul Kagame stopped using French and shifted towards anglophone East Africa — demonstrates, alternatives now exist that make distancing from France an appealing option. Most notably, China is now willing to provide services and resources that previously would only have been offered by France. Speaking in Burkina Faso in 2017, President Macron described young Africans as part of a generation that has “never known Africa as a colonized continent.” While it is true that most Africans living today have never personally experienced colonial rule, Africans young and old are now intimately familiar with French neocolonialism, and platitudes alone will not be enough to address growing resentment. France will need to undertake structural and ideological changes in its approach if it wants to retain and strengthen its relations with its African partners on new and equitable grounds.

John Dashe
Communications Intern,
Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement