The 2017 French election was watched with great nervousness by millions across Francophone Africa. That’s because the French president remains a pivotal figure in about 20 former French colonies on the continent.
Over the past 60 years France has maintained disproportionate influence over its former African colonies. This has included control over their military and currencies.
Despite being led by different presidents over the past six decades, the French government’s policy on Africa has been faithful to its neo-colonial roots and grounded in a yearning for the lost Empire.
But will Emmanuel Macron’s presidency herald a significant change to France’s relationship with its ex-colonies?
Unlike any other French leader Macron has openly expressed remorse for aspects of France’s colonial past. His election rhetoric suggested that he viewed France’s neo-colonial dominance with some embarrassment, preferring to loosen France’s hold on its former colonies.
But it’s one thing to speak of France’s need to confront its colonial past. When it comes to restoring French “confidence”, as Macron has promised, policy continuity, rather than change, will prevail.
A long legacy
In the aftermath of World War II, Charles De Gaulle formulated a strategy that was meant to define France’s relations with Africa in the post-imperial era.
The plan was to shore up France’s international standing by ensuring a continued relationship with its colonies. In fact, the short-lived Franco-African Union of the 1940s-50s was an attempt to establish a form of federation between France and its former colonies.
Instead, what sprung up across Francophone countries in West and Central Africa was a network of French commercial, military and political interests. These interests worked to maintain the status quo of African economic and political elites.
Francafrique had strong colonial underpinnings. Former French colonies provided France with valuable raw material and minerals while opening their markets to French imports. In return, France guaranteed national security and a steady flow of aid.
France also propped up francophile leaders, in particular Senegal’s Leopold Sédar Senghor and Cote d’Ivoire’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Both saw themselves as the guardians of a paternalistic order that kept Francophone Africa under French tutelage.
More than that, France retained control of the CFA – the basic monetary unit of Central and West Africa. To this day African countries such as Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Gabon, are required to deposit two-thirds of their foreign exchange surpluses into a French operations account.
During Francois Mitterrand’s term in office (1981 - 95) 60 000 French troops were stationed in Francophone Africa. They supported several unsavoury governments, including the Hutu regime presided over by Juvenal Habyarimana in Rwanda, which went on to murder 800 000 Tutsis and some Hutus in the 1994 genocide. French soldiers did little to stop the bloodbath.
However, relations between France and its former colonies entered a new phase in the post 9/11 era. The Islamic Sahel and Arab North Africa became a new frontier in the global fight against terror.
French investment and commitment to development faded, paving the way for bilateral funding. Policy moved from guarding strategic assets to securing economic assets by any means necessary.
Under President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), French policy was distinctly interventionist. In 2002, France extended military support to Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire when his regime was threatened by a rebel insurgency. It remained heavily involved in Cote d’Ivoire until 2011 when Gbagbo was dislodged after a bitterly contested election.
The post-Chirac era
Chirac was the last of the paternalistic, Gaullist French leaders. After his presidency, France became unapologetically mercantilist: it remains in Francophone Africa to protect its nationals, to guard its assets and to counter Chinese competition for natural resources and markets.
After Chirac, came President Nicolas Sarkozy who had little empathy for Africa. Sarkozy’s policy was centred on immigration, an issue that was at the top of his government’s agenda. As a way to deter immigration he adopted a “co-development” strategy, which saw France invest in education in Francophone Africa.
Socialist president Francois Hollande (2012 - 17) became more involved in Africa than any other president, contradicting his apparently progressive rhetoric, which suggested a rethink of France’s neo-colonial relationship with the continent.
During Hollande’s term security issues that threatened French interests led to a series of military interventions. These included Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane in Mali.
What started out as an ideological policy to maintain soft power through cultural and economic ties between France and francophone Africa had gradually become a coercive, militarised relationship.
Macron is the first self-styled apologist to take office in France. He is calling for the severing of France’s relationship with Francophone Africa, but on African terms. Macron argues that a gradual phasing out of the CFA franc and withdrawal of French troops should be implemented if that’s what Africans want.
But, nearly 60 years after African independence, France and Francophone Africa remain entangled beyond separation. French companies still have a quasi-monopoly over the most strategic areas in Francophone economies. Examples include electricity, telecommunications, infrastructure, airports and harbours. France’s continued influence on Francophone African foreign policy is apparent in Africa’s policy alignments.
Macron is a neo-liberal and former investment banker determined to open Africa up for greater trade even amid security concerns. His first visit outside Europe was to French military forces in Mali. Some see this as a sign that his presidency may have an increasingly militaristic impact on Africa.
Macron’s sober view of colonial history therefore should be taken with a pinch of salt, as he’s unlikely to loosen France’s grip over Africa.