On November 21, 2022, Mali’s interim Prime Minister Colonel Abdoulaye Maïga posted a statement on social media to say that Mali has decided “to ban, with immediate effect, all activities carried outMore
A Bloomberg report cited unnamed British ministers, diplomats and officials to the effect that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has tasked senior ministers and officials to draw up plans for rebuilding the UK’s relations with the EU after years of acrimony since Brexit, “across a range of policy areas” on defence, migration, trade, energy and international standards.
Britain hopes to come up in the coming days with a new initiative on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. The policy shift is projected as “a reflection of a changing reality” rather than an admission of the colossal failure of Brexit.
The “changing reality” could be anything ranging from the political necessity for Sunak who completed this first 100 days in office as PM to show dynamism as the country heads for general election next year. But the signs are that Britain could be in the long game.
In politics and diplomacy, the sub-plot often turns out to be more far-reaching than the main plot. In the present case, the Brexit is the main plot but laying the foundation for a more comprehensive improvement in UK’s ties with the EU bloc constitutes a consequential sub-plot that is even more consequential.
Sunak’s blossoming personal equations with French President Emmanuel Macron pave the way for cooperation with France, as Europe’s power dynamic after the yearlong Ukraine conflict is evolving. Sunak and Macron are on the same page on Ukraine, although the UK is far more vocal and takes a hands-on role in the war. Last week, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky travelled from Kiev to London and then onward to Paris to meet Macron on a British government plane.
Sunak and Macron have much in common as two highly educated politicians and finance ministers. Politico dubbed them as “two peas in a pod” who favour tailored skinny blue suits; Guardian labelled it as a “bromance” of two ex-finance ministers with common threads in their backgrounds and routes to politics. (Both millionaires are the eldest sons of doctors.)
That said, the UK and France are great powers with a rich historical memory who wouldn’t act impulsively. In the context of the realignment under way in European politics since the war began in Ukraine, there is an opportunity and need to reset Franco-British ties. Both countries are at sea, rudderless as past certainties — EU anchor sheet for Sunak and the Franco-German axis for Macron — have vanished.
The pomp and ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty in Paris on January 22 exposed the futility of recapturing the verve of the Franco-German axis in the dramatically changed milieu in European politics. As for post-Brexit Britain, it finds itself in a cul-de-sac and is struggling to figure out an exit strategy.
The future challenge for both countries is about the need to work on a way ahead for the “big picture” of European integration while also seeking compromise and a common path on many complex and difficult policies.
At the time of the Brexit negotiations six years ago, Britain didn’t reciprocate the EU’s push for more defence cooperation. On the contrary, one of the proposals under consideration in London currently is a formal defence and security relationship and dialogue between the UK and EU, as well as a legal agreement to more easily allow the British military to join EU operations.
Macron no longer says that the NATO is “brain-dead.” Britain intends to propose a plan at the NATO summit in Lithuania in July for a defence budget by member states going beyond the group’s existing commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence.
Sunak will accept Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s call for greater investment in Britain’s Armed Forces, and a post-Ukraine update to the Integrated Review of British defence, security and foreign policy, which is due in the coming weeks. In political terms, he is consolidating his credentials to lead his party.
On the other hand, the recent heated behind-the-scenes disagreements with Germany regarding the Ukraine war on issues such as tanks saw France and the UK more aligned on foreign and defence policy than at any point in decades. Historically, the UK and France have the most powerful militaries in Europe. But the so-called Zeitenwende is Germany’s biggest rearmament since World War II.
What is unspoken is about the trend toward the rearmament of Germany and about the global role that Berlin will play. Two days after Russia’s special military operation began in Ukraine, in an emotional speech to the Bundestag, Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared: “We are experiencing a Zeitenwende.”
The Zeitenwende becomesa watershed moment, a changing of the times, a “turning point” in German security policy, as Scholz promised to raise military spending to at least 2% of GDP and create a 100 billion euro defence fund. The ratings of Scholz and his Social Democratic Party soared.
The Bundeswehr may be in some ways a domestic political project but it has a foreign policy dimension. The Zeitenwende will make Germany’s military budget the third largest in the world, coming after the US and China and leaving France and the UK trailing behind.
Indeed, the game between all parties around the West’s conflict with Russia has intensified, and the geopolitical situation in Europe has undergone drastic changes. It is against this background that Poland has sought nuclear sharing with the US to relieve its own security pressure.
On September 1, the 73rd anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland, Warsaw released the final report which maintained that the country was entitled to approx. $1.39 trillion as war reparations from Berlin. Following Germany’s refusal to pay war reparations, Poland is calling on the US and the UN for support.
Britain and France know only too well from history that militarisation does not guarantee peace. With the Zeitenwende, Germany is set to become a cornerstone of conventional interstate war power in Europe. And the machine behind this will be a German military-industrial complex.
Enter Seymour Hersh. The investigative report by the renowned American journalist Seymour Hersh on February 8 lays bare that the US Navy executed the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines and, furthermore, that the White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan himself oversaw the plans for the covert operation — even before the Russian operation began in Ukraine.
This sabotage is the culmination of a long-term American strategy dating back to the cold war era to dismantle the extensive economic links between Moscow and Germany. The US oil companies have profited immensely by shifting German energy consumption away from Russia, which has also created a difficult environment for broader German industry as a competitor to American goods.
Hersh’s report deals a humiliating blow to German pride and national honour. There is deafening silence in Berlin. What ensues can only be known if and when the Ukraine conflict ends. But the Biden Administration is in no hurry to end the conflict and is instead leading from the rear a campaign to lock in Germany to the fight against Russia in Ukraine.
A more dangerous world is ahead, which dictates that there is no choice but to work closely with allies. This means Britain and France moving away from the past collisions with each other and toward a more stable relationship as critical friends.
The state visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to the United States stands out as a signpost of the alignments taking place against the backdrop of the historic churning in the world order. The two leaders went to extraordinary lengths to display bonhomie but how far that impressed the two statesmen — Macron, an erudite mind and the most vocal European statesman on his continent’s integration and strategic autonomy vis-a-vis the US, and Biden, a veteran of international diplomacy — time will show.
Macron already marked his profound difference with the US stance on Ukraine, a topic that dominated his visit, in a remark in Paris on Saturday after his return, during an interview for the French channel TF1. Macron said,
“We must think about the security architecture, in which we will live tomorrow. I am talking, in particular, about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words that NATO is approaching Russia’s borders and deploys weapons that could threaten it. This issue will be a part of the peace discussions, and we must prepare for what will come after [the Ukrainian conflict], and think how we could protect our allies and, at the same time, provide Russia with guarantees of its own security, once the sides return to the negotiation table.”
Macron made the above remark as the countdown begins for an expected large-scale Russian winter offensive in Ukraine.
While the Joint Statement issued after Macron’s visit shows that the US and France are on the same page in their criticism of Moscow’s conduct of the war in Ukraine, the nuances in the respective articulation by the two leaders during their joint press conference cannot be missed.
Biden, of course, tore into Putin, personally holding him responsible, but Macron held back. Interestingly, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also may have marked his distance from Biden by initiating a call with Putin on Friday, his second in a row in successive months.
The readout from Moscow highlighted that while Scholz criticised Russia’s conduct of the conflict, he went on to discuss other issues with Putin and they agreed to keep in touch.
Both France and Germany are greatly concerned about a possible escalation of the war in Ukraine whereas the US is focused on supporting Kiev “for as long as it takes.”
Macron highlighted France’s 3-pronged approach: “Help Ukraine resist”; “Prevent any risk of escalation in this conflict”; and, “make sure that, when the time comes, on basis of conditions to be set by Ukrainians themselves, help build peace.” But Biden was categorical that “there is one way for this war to end the rational way: Putin to pull out of Ukraine.”
Macron maintained that “We need to work on what could lead to a peace agreement, but it is for him [Ukrainian president Zelensky] to tell us when the time comes and what the choices of the Ukrainians are.”
Macron indirectly stressed the need for flexibility, saying, “If we want a sustainable peace, we have to respect the Ukrainians to decide the moment and the conditions in which they will negotiate about their territory and their future.”
Curiously, Biden never once mentioned Zelensky, whereas, Macon openly commended “the efforts of President Zelensky to try and find a way, a path to peace while leading the heroic resistance.”
Macron stressed, “I believe, very much need to continue to engage with him [Zelensky] because there is a genuine willingness, on behalf of Ukraine, to discuss these matters. And we acknowledge it, and we commend it.”
Apart from Ukraine, as expected, Macron’s main concern was the recent Inflation Reduction Act, a $369 billion package of subsidies and tax breaks enacted by the Biden Administration to boost American green businesses, which, from a European perspective, constitutes a protectionist measure that encourages companies to shift investments from Europe and incentivises customers to “Buy American”.
Only a month remains before the final provisions of the US law enter into force on January 1. Germany and France have hit back by joining forces to back a French push for a more subsidy-based EU industrial policy.
At the White House talks with Macron, Biden conceded that there were “glitches” in the roll-out of America’s multi-billion-dollar package of green subsidies. To quote Biden, “There’s tweaks that we can make that can fundamentally make it easier for European countries to participate and, or be on their own, but that is something that is a matter to be worked out.”
The remark, perhaps, allows Macron to claim a takeaway from his visit. But how far Biden’s words get turned into practice remains to be seen, as chances of Congress amending the law is debatable, especially as Republicans are set to take narrow control of the House.
Clearly, the Biden-Macron meeting does not include a breakthrough on Europe’s concerns. Biden’s basic stance is that “United States makes no apology,” since the IRA legislation aims to “make sure that the United States continues… not to have to rely on anybody else’s supply chain. We’re — we are our own supply chain.”
Macron noted that he had “some very frank discussions.” He stressed, “France simply did not come to ask for an exemption or another for — for our economy but simply to discuss the consequences of this legislation… We will continue to move forward as Europeans. And we’re not here simply, really, to ask for ‘proof of love’.”
The Americans are making a fortune from the Ukraine war — selling more gas to Europe at vastly higher prices and boosting arms exports to NATO countries who have supplied military hardware to Ukraine. The EU countries are suffering when the war in Ukraine is tipping them into recession, with inflation rocketing and a devastating squeeze on energy supplies threatening blackouts and rationing this winter.
The greening of America at the cost of European industry casts shadows on the Indo-Pacific strategy. The recent visits by Scholz and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, to Beijing in quick succession underscores that the tensions in the transatlantic alliance as a fallout of the Ukraine war have a spillover effect.
Macron’s visit to Washington showed that France’s main interest lies in “building resilience in the Pacific Islands.” Apropos China, the Biden-Macron joint statement had nothing new to announce. It resorted to a balanced formulation that the US and France will “continue to coordinate on our concerns regarding China’s challenge to the rules-based international order, including respect for human rights, and to work together with China on important global issues like climate change.”
On Taiwan, the joint statement simply reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Conceivably, the crushing defeat Tsai Ing-wen suffered in the recent Taiwanese local elections had a sobering effect.
At any rate, in their respective opening remarks at the press conference on the Indo-Pacific strategy, while Biden limited himself to an anodyne remark or two, Macron simply glossed over the subject.
Beijing must be quietly pleased that Michel picked Thursday for his visit. President Xi Jinping appreciated the EU’s ‘“goodwill of furthering relations with China.” Xi noted that the more unstable the international situation becomes and the more acute challenges the world faces, the greater global significance China-EU relations take on.
The EU’s foreign policy is at a juncture on whether to confront or cooperate with China. Global Times wrote that Michel’s visit “sent a signal that represents rational voices, that is, refusing to follow the US and treat China primarily through a political and ideological perspective…What the US wants is hegemony, but Europe wants survival, and the EU cannot achieve that without China.”
The bottom line is that as the conflict in Ukraine escalates, the neocons in the Biden Administration may feel elated, but the incipient tensions in the transatlantic relations can only aggravate.
On November 21, 2022, Mali’s interim Prime Minister Colonel Abdoulaye Maïga posted a statement on social media to say that Mali has decided “to ban, with immediate effect, all activities carried out by NGOs operating in Mali with funding or material or technical support from France.” A few days before this statement, the French government cut official development assistance (ODA) to Mali because it believed that Mali’s government is “allied to Wagner’s Russian mercenaries.” Colonel Maïga responded by saying that these are “fanciful allegations” and a “subterfuge intended to deceive and manipulate national and international public opinion.”
Tensions between France and Mali have increased over the course of 2022. The former colonial power returned to Mali with a military intervention in 2013 to combat the rise of Islamist insurgency in the northern half of Mali; in May 2022, the military government of Mali ejected the French troops. That decision in May came after several months of accusations between Paris and Bamako that mirrored the rise of anti-French sentiment across the Sahel region of Africa.
A new burst of anti-colonial feeling has swept through France’s former colonies, where the debates are now centered around breaking with France’s stranglehold on their economies and ending the military intervention by French troops. Since 2019, the countries that are part of the West African Economic and Monetary Union and the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa have been slowly withdrawing from French control over their economies (for example, in 2020, the French officially announced that for West Africa, it would end the requirement for countries to deposit half their foreign exchange reserves with the French Treasury through the old colonial instrument of the CFA franc). According to a story that circulated in West Africa and the Sahel—given credence by an email sent by an “unofficial adviser” to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—one of the reasons why France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 was because the Libyan leader had proposed a new African currency instead of the CFA franc.
France denies that the reason for this tension with Mali is due to the new anti-colonial mood. The French government says that it is entirely due to Mali’s intimacy with Russia. Mali’s military has increasingly been establishing closer ties with the Russian government and military. Mali’s Defense Minister Colonel Sadio Camara and Air Force Chief of Staff General Alou Boï Diarra are considered to be “the architects” of a deal made between the Malian military and the Wagner group in 2021 to bring in several hundred mercenaries into Mali as part of the campaign against jihadist groups.
Wagner soldiers are in Mali, but they are not the cause of the rift between Paris and Bamako. The anti-colonial temper predates the entry of Wagner, which France is using as an excuse to cover up its humiliation.
On August 25, French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Algeria on a three-day visit to begin mending bilateral relations with the country. Ties between France and Algeria have historically been erratic, but they plummeted in October 2021 following Macron’s comments questioning Algeria’s existence as a nation prior to French colonization. The ensuing diplomatic crisis saw the recall of Algeria’s ambassador to France as well as Algeria banning its airspace to French military planes.
France’s ongoing affair with Algeria reflects the complicated relationship it has with many of its former colonies in Africa. The French first began to establish trading posts on the Senegalese coast in the early 17th century and launched several expeditions against Barbary pirates and slave traders in North Africa in the mid-to-late 17th century. The French invasion of Ottoman Algiers in 1830 then transformed France’s relationship with Africa and launched the beginning of French colonialism into the interior of the continent.
By the early 20th century, Paris commanded control over much of West and Central Africa. However, the French Empire grew increasingly strained during World War I as well as during the occupation of France by Nazi Germany in World War II. French decolonization began soon after and was largely finalized relatively peacefully after 1960, save for a bloody seven-year war with Algeria that lasted until 1962.
Yet in the context of the Cold War, France had gained the backing of the U.S. to help contain communism in its former colonies in the African continent. The lingering sphere of influence in the region came to be known as Françafrique—a term coined by former Côte d’Ivoire President Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1955. Across its former empire, the French-speaking and often French-educated local elites cultivated ties with Paris to help manage internal stability and foreign affairs in their countries after independence.
France implemented economic policies to bind the former colonies to it, including the CFA franc currency zone, created in 1945. The currency was later divided into West African and Central African CFA francs, which had a fixed rate of exchange with the French CFA franc (and later the euro), tying more than a dozen countries to French monetary policy. In addition, 50 percent of their reserves were to be kept in the French central bank, with unlimited convertibility of CFA francs into euros.
Some CFA countries saw relatively low inflation and high growth in comparison to other sub-Saharan African countries from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s. But in the 1980s and 1990s, domestic production fell and imports increased, leading to a rise in public debt. The devaluing of the CFA franc in 1994 also led to wage freezes and spiraling expenses for goods.
Today, the CFA is often criticized for hindering regional trade, restricting access to credit, increasing dependence on exporting a limited number of primary commodities, and enhancing member states’ vulnerability to foreign economic crises. In December 2019, it was announced that the West African CFA franc would be replaced by a new currency called eco by 2027, and would be adopted by 15 countries, including African states outside the current CFA franc currency zone.
African leaders remain divided over the issue of switching to this new currency, but the reform efforts represent growing dismay toward French economic policies in its former colonies. Nonetheless, French companies like TotalEnergies, Areva, Bolloré SE, Bouygues, Vinci, Eiffage, and many others have dominated Africa’s energy, construction, transportation, media, and telecommunications industries for decades. Their command over local economic mechanisms has often made the infrastructure owned by these companies targets, such as seen during the protests in Senegal in 2021.
Over the past 20 years, meanwhile, China’s state-run corporations have come to threaten the regional hegemony of France’s major conglomerates in the continent. While China lacks the post-colonial networks that France enjoys, Beijing has entered Africa with enormous investment potential and without the political baggage of previous colonialism. And while there is little doubt that Chinese companies have entered Africa to pursue their own self-interests, they are a welcome sign of competition away from the previous French monopoly.
France has typically been able to leverage its security role in the region by both extending military support to governments in Africa and by providing direct and tacit support to coups in several countries. In 2013, France began a military campaign in Mali, Operation Serval (followed by Operation Barkhane), to protect its interests and local allies in the Sahel region while coordinating with the U.S.-led war on terror.
However, the French-led military campaigns’ mixed results have been met with increasing regional criticism. And as the U.S. has sought to militarily disengage from much of the continent in recent years, this has put additional pressure on France to drastically reduce its campaign in the Sahel. French forces pulled out of the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2016 and from Mali in August.
France has also had to contend with other countries attempting to increase their military influence in Africa. The CAR’s government invited the Russian private military company, Wagner, in 2018 in response to France’s departure. Later, these Russian mercenaries were deployed in Mali in 2021. Private military companies are cheaper and come without the unpopular specter of using the military of the country’s former colonial power. Turkey’s quick recognition of those leading the Malian coup in 2020 also demonstrated Ankara’s growing role in African military affairs.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s frequent criticism of Macron over his stance on Islam in France and around the world has also put the French president on the defensive. Perceptions of Islamophobia could jeopardize its relations with its majority Muslim former colonies in Africa and the wider Muslim world and could add to the discontent among France’s estimated 10 percent Muslim population.
Much of Africa’s comparatively larger younger populations are less receptive to residual French influence in their countries, while many of the elites who were educated in France are also no longer in power or as relevant as they once were. The Organization Internationale de la Francophonie, or Francophonie, created in 1970 to coordinate integration and cooperation among French-speaking countries, saw two of its members, Gabon and Togo, join the UK’s Commonwealth of Nations in June.
France’s weakening cultural influence was on full display during Macron’s visit to Algeria in August. The Algerian government had already indicated in July that English would be taught in the country’s primary schools, amid deliberations across the region questioning the future role of the French language.
To offset this development, Macron has promoted literature and images from across Africa and the rest of the French-speaking world, and declared the French language’s “‘epicenter’ was in the ‘heart of Africa.’” While some projections have predicted the number of French speakers to reach 750 million by 2050, Macron has recognized that this will only take place with the introduction of a more proactive language policy in Africa that promotes its use and regional adaptability.
France has also taken steps to try and link the European Union to Africa. In February, France led attempts to renew the EU’s partnership with the African Union. The Summit of Heads of State and Government of the European Union and the African Union (AU) in February saw EU leaders announce a 150-billion-euro investment in Africa to assist in the development of the region. But despite the coordination between the AU and the EU, France’s Africa policies face other challenges due to competition with other European countries.
Italy, for example, saw much of its investments in Libya vanish following the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, which France heavily lobbied for. The two countries continue to support different sides in Libya’s ongoing civil war. And in 2019, Italian deputy prime ministers criticized France for its apathy toward destabilization in Africa and for pursuing economic policies that prevented development and increased migration from the continent.
With the onset of fresh competition from other countries, outdated political and economic mechanisms being used by the French, and lingering opposition to its dominance, France’s Africa strategy is floundering in its former colonies and across the continent. And unlike the British and Spanish empires, which enforced their culture and political systems in various regions over centuries, the French involvement in Africa was not long enough to entrench its influence accordingly. Without a serious overhaul, Paris will continue to lose its ability to compete with other countries and satisfy African populations who are seeking change.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.