After the end of French colonization of African countries at the hands of African liberation movements, France was one of the countries that maintained the most ties with its former colonies. However, after more than eight decades of independence, French influence in Africa waned, prompting Paris to adopt a new policy that makes it an effective player once again, despite a wave of protests led by African peoples and political circles over the past few years.
Paris’ primary objective in Africa was to secure its economic gains of gold, diamond, and other raw materials; however, the rise of other powers’ interest in Africa and the rivalry among traditional powers, led by France, have presented obstacles.
Indications of France’s Declining Role in Africa
France’s informal sway in West African countries rests on the backing of the region’s ruling classes. Paris also created the West African Monetary Zone, which comprises Senegal, Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Benin, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Niger, Mali, Togo, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea. Together, these countries make up 14 percent of Africa’s total population, occupy about 965,000 square miles of land, and generate 12 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product. Additionally, the franc used throughout West and Central Africa was pegged to the euro.
These guiding principles of the French regime for its colonies in West Africa gave Paris a preferential advantage, causing it to hold on to 50 percent of foreign currency reserves and 20 percent of financial liabilities, while these African countries held on to 30 percent. In exchange, France became the fourth country in the world with gold reserves, despite not owning a single mine on its territory.
As a result of these policies, France came under fire in some regions of West Africa, where it had a chilling effect on the developing economies of those places. As a result, there were indications of anti-French sentiment in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Rwanda, where the populations of those countries accused France of economic profiteering because of the plans it put into place, which caused the populations of those countries to reach the lowest level of per capita income.
Although there were ups and downs in relations between West Africa and France, sub-Saharan African countries were still maintaining bilateral ties, so Paris did not anticipate a violent response prior to the year 2000. However, the September 11 attacks forced the United States to change its approach to fighting terrorism through the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which eventually undermined French strategic influence as some of these countries turned away from their reliance on France and moved closer to the United States.
Competing forces have entered Africa and offered an alternative to African leaders and governments. These forces include China, which has significantly impacted the continent over the past 20 years, as well as Russia, which has made a comeback to the world stage of international competition and has ambitions to deepen ties with the countries of the continent. Since 2007, China’s share of Africa’s trade has grown to become the largest in the world. China’s 17 percent stake in the African market is three times as large as France’s, particularly in West Africa. It also picked up a substantial number of African firms that converted. Chinese technology, largely ignored by the West, dominates Africa’s cyberspace, and West Africa’s natural resources are crucial to China’s international trade.
The Mouvement des Entreprises de France surveyed African leaders in 2022 and found that France’s standing had declined year after year. Paris came in ninth on the list of the most well-liked non-African countries, behind Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and far behind the top three countries, which were the United States, Canada, and Germany, followed by China and Russia.
France’s New Instruments in Africa
French leaders rely on a strategic system to help them overcome obstacles in the way of being a valuable partner for many African leaders, especially after the wave of popular protests rose lately, calling for stepping outside Paris’s shadow. Paris has turned to alternative strategies to ensure the continuity of its economic resources, particularly after the country sensed the rise of rival international powers like the US, China, and Russia as well as the fierce competition between European countries over Africa.
In this regard, France relied on advancing diplomatic plans to strengthen its position and role, which had substantially started to decline, through the army and the pursuit of a new security policy, as well as the creation of political, social, and cultural tools. In addition to collaborating with the most vibrant social movements, particularly in West Africa, France tried to fortify its ties with a number of new African leaders and forge close ties with elites who were in their third or fourth decade of life. However, it did not give up some of its traditional tools, including funding radical and extremist Islamic organizations and conducting political assassinations, coups, and presidential overthrows.
France is very good at putting its plans into action, especially the ones that have to do with security, like the political assassination of African leaders who rebel against it. These are typically already-made backup plans that highlight the significant role the French military establishment and its intelligence services played through a system within African military institutions, where the majority of leaders receive their education from French missionaries, which typically enables them to join the military institutions in their countries in the future.
This situation prompted the French government to launch a number of political initiatives to restructure its return to Africa through influencers from the new political elite, as well as plans to support small and medium-sized businesses, in the hopes of catching the eye of new leaders. Paris has already started putting this into action by holding frequent and in-depth workshops for Africa’s young professionals so that they can form partnerships with prominent French businessmen and strengthen ties across all economic sectors.
Through its use of soft power, France places a special emphasis on real-world development initiatives and humanitarian needs. The challenging and overwhelming task is to transform the incredible economies of these countries in order to win hearts and minds through large-scale operations prioritizing the provision of humanitarian support in the form of medical and food supplies, as well as a range of other emergency items, through French humanitarian partners to meet urgent needs like nutrition, health care, shelter, and water, not to mention upcoming French plans to scale back its military presence in Africa in favor of stepping up efforts to train and arm local forces in accordance with their requirements.
In addition, France is providing its African partners with an interdisciplinary African project that emphasizes innovation across the arts, sciences, technology, entrepreneurship, and economics; this project will use education as a holistic issue for the sharing and transfer of knowledge, thereby fostering mobility; and it will feature exhibitions in which women and youth from all fields present their work.
On the other hand, Paris intends to strengthen its ties with Africa by sending members of the French political elite who are of African descent to those countries to offer their expertise in the areas of agriculture, industry, energy, and oil, through awareness-raising workshops and plans that will be carried out as projects and supported by the French side.
In conclusion, French sway in Africa is waning as new competitors emerge to challenge it in a variety of fields and on more favorable terms. Currently, there is a growing movement among Africa’s youth to break ties with France in favor of forging alliances with other countries. This is because, for the past eight decades, France has relied on the support of incompetent tyrant rulers who worked for it by proxy in exchange for staying in power, often without caring about the interests of their people or the aspirations of their societies. Add to this France’s mistreatment of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, its condescending attitude toward African countries and some of their national leaders, and its major role in orchestrating military coups to strip Africans of the ability to make decisions about their own affairs and resources, keeping them trapped in a cycle of dependency and exploitation.