As French influence rapidly declines, are we witnessing the end of Francafrique?
Anti-French sentiment has sharply increased in Sahelian and North African countries, driven mostly by enduring animosity toward the contributions of Paris to the destabilization of parts of the Sahel through misguided and ill-fated military interventions.
In Algeria and Morocco, French attempts to redefine relations have failed to convince enraged youths in both countries. Meanwhile, foreign-policy failures in Libya, and a woeful miscalculation in Tunisia, are fueling a consensus about the diminished role of France in what was once its jealously guarded sphere of influence.
The writing was on the wall as far back as the late 1950s, when most French colonies in Africa were gaining independence in quick succession. By the end of the Cold War, France was struggling to maintain its proverbial pre carre (or “backyard”), comprised of independent states that were once part of French delusions of grandeur as a global power — not unlike the overbearing American and British influence in the mostly unipolar world of yesteryear.
The heyday of so-called “Francafrique,” a pejorative reference to the collapsing French influence over its former colonies in Africa, soon gave way to domestic constraints, a rising tide of anti-colonialism, the dwindling influence of Francafrique’s proponents, and its membership of the EU.
Meanwhile, despite the political and economic liberalization that came with emancipation from French hegemony, former colonies rapidly lost their allure given the inevitable post-independence sociopolitical upheavals.
Thus, the natural evolution of French “outreach” was the adoption of patronizing pragmatism in what was left of its economic, security, political and even cultural ties with the Francafrique, typically via convoluted approaches involving its public institutions, media organizations, businesses and academia.
This framing alludes to French waywardness as a national undertaking but most of the policy-making and strategic maneuvering throughout the French sphere of influence in Africa was actually carried out by a small, select group of elites within the French President’s orbit.
Often, these “advisors” and policy influencers worked closely with powerful French business entities that already had, or sought, commercial opportunities in strategic industries, such as fossil fuels and mineral resource extraction, in the former colonies.
Other shadowy elites with connections to the General Directorate for External Security, the French secret service, would lobby Elysee Palace to establish security umbrellas, build ideological networks and even stage timely “interventions” through questionable elections or coups.
For a time, the long shadow cast by Paris maintained the illusion of a still-thriving post-colonial behemoth, a guarantor of the political and economic stability of nascent African republics, and an enforcer of UN mandates.
From cooperation accords and currencies pegged to the French franc to budding personal networks built between gilded elites on both sides of the Mediterranean, France held sway for decades, unchallenged, even as persistent failures and lack of oversight began to underwrite a surge in corruption and state racketeering.
It was only a matter of time until French influence waned, however, which is exactly what is happening in our multipolar world where there is no shortage of competition to French dominance and opposition to its aims in this part of the world.
An increased Chinese presence, for instance, coupled with similar “intrusions” from Russia, the US, Italy, Turkey and multiple Arab states, have emboldened local actors to no longer solely rely on French networks or support to maintain power. For empowered North African countries not keen on toeing the Elysee Palace line, there is now no shortage of external partners amenable to beneficial ties that do not come with an implicit demand for deference to Paris, thereby subordinating their own national interests.
So it is unsurprising that in recent years the negative perception of France across multiple Francafrique societies and populations has only grown steadily and is poised to pick up momentum if current trends persist.
Even before today’s geopolitical inevitabilities, France had yet to endure the backlash for more than 50 years of malign interventionism across Africa, not excluding propping up odious regimes that prized self-enrichment over the national welfare. As a result, several insurgency groups spawned to challenge weakened governments beholden to Paris, transforming the Sahel into a fertile region for malign actors that have gone on to terrorize entire populations.
In fact, the failure to rein in jihadist insurgency groups and violent gangs is also fueling French resentment, since military rulers backed by Paris lack the competence, resolve or strategy to combat this threat. As a result, French antipathy has grown to a point where Sahelian communities would sooner tolerate lawless marauders than endure a sustained French presence that has lost all utility and relevance.
In the past two years alone at least six coup d’etats, driven by surging anti-French sentiment in the Sahel, have taken place in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, countries that were once a hotbed of French colonial interference.
Violent protests across the Sahel also illustrate the depths of resentment felt in the capitals of Morocco and Algeria. A recent flurry of diplomatic activity between Algiers and Paris has more or less sidelined dissenting voices among the Algerian public — voices that hurled insults at French President Emmanuel Macron during an official visit just over a month ago. In Morocco, however, it is a different story.
The worsening relations between Morocco and France are mostly due to the fact that Rabat has developed strategic economic, political and security relations with regimes across parts of West and Central Africa in an indirect challenge to traditional French hegemony.
Most of these connections serve a two-fold purpose: Garnering support ahead of the international community’s scrutiny of Western Sahara, as well as eroding Algerian influence to keep a regional rival in check. As a result, Paris feels that it is being slighted and gradually sidelined by the Moroccans, who are also steadily enhancing their ties with Washington and reaping a whirlwind of dividends in the form of military hardware and tacit endorsement of Morocco’s proposals on the Western Sahara question.
With the trip to Algeria behind him, Macron is expected to head to Morocco this month but, as it stands, it is unclear whether what will most likely be a tense and awkward face-to-face in Rabat will be able to thaw an increasingly frosty relationship, especially when Morocco seems to be holding all the cards.
After all, having failed to achieve any tangible political and military objectives in Libya, coupled with the unlikely prospect of a troubled Tunis inviting any more French influence in its politics, the writing on the wall is slowly becoming more legible. Francafrique is on its last legs.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell