Emmanuel Macron

Charting the Rise of Anti-French Sentiment Across Northern Africa

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In November 2021, a French military convoy was making its way to Mali while passing through Burkina Faso and Niger. It did not get very far. It was stopped in Téra, Niger, and before that at several points in Burkina Faso (in Bobo-Dioulasso and Kaya as well as in Ouagadougou, the country’s capital). Two civilians were killed as a result of clashes between the French convoy and protestors who were “angry at the failure of French forces to reign in terrorism in the region.” When the convoy crossed into Mali, it was attacked near the city of Gao.

Colonel Pascal Ianni, French Chief of Defense Staff spokesperson, told Julien Fanciulli of France 24 that there was a lot of “false information circulating” about the French convoy. Blame for the attacks was placed on “terrorists,” namely Islamic groups that continue to hold large parts of Mali and Burkina Faso. These groups have been emboldened and hardened by the 2011 war on Libya, prosecuted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and egged on by France. What Colonel Ianni would not admit is that the protests that followed the convoy revealed the depth of anti-French sentiment across North Africa and the Sahel region.

Coups d’états in the region have been taking place for more than two years—from the coup in Mali in August 2020 to the coup in Burkina Faso in September 2022. The coups in the region, including the coup in Guinea in September 2021 as well and the two other coups in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), and another coup in Burkina Faso (January 2022), were driven in large part due to the anti-French sentiment in the Sahel. In May 2022, the military leaders in Mali ejected the French military bases set up in 2014, while France’s political project—G5 Sahel—flounders in this atmosphere of animosity. Protests against the French in Morocco and Algeria have only added weight to the anti-French sentiment spreading across the African continent, with French President Emmanuel Macron showered with insults as he tried to walk the streets of Oran in Algeria in August 2022.

Animosities

“The situation in the former French colonies (Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and Mali) is different from the situation in northern Africa,” Abdallah El Harif of the Workers’ Democratic Way Party of Morocco told me. “The bad relations between the regime in Morocco and France is due to the fact that the Moroccan regime has developed important economic, political, and security relations with the regimes of West Africa at the expense of the French,” he said. About the former French colonies along the Sahel in particular, El Harif said that “many popular insurrections” had taken place against the continued French colonial presence in these countries. With Morocco distancing itself from France, Paris is angered by its growing ties with the United States, while in the Sahel region people want to eject France from their lives.

Morocco’s monarchy has reacted quietly to the coups in the Sahel, not willing to associate itself with the kind of anti-French sentiment in the region. Such an association would call attention to Morocco’s close relationship with the United States. This U.S.-Morocco relationship has provided the monarchy with dividends: military equipment from the United States and permission for Morocco to continue with its occupation of Western Sahara, including the mining of the region’s precious phosphates (in exchange for Morocco opening ties with Israel). Each year, since 2004, Morocco has hosted a U.S. military exercise, the African Lion. In June 2022, 10 African countries participated in the African Lion 2022, with observers from Israel (for the first time) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Morocco, El Harif told me, “has enormously developed its military relations with the United States.” France has been sidelined by these maneuvers, which has annoyed Paris. As he left behind the jeering crowds in Oran, Algeria, President Macron said that he would visit Morocco in late October.

In the Sahel region, unlike in Morocco, there is a growing popular sentiment against the French colonial interference (called Françafrique). Chad’s former President Idriss Déby Itno, who died in 2021, told Jeune Afrique in 2019 that “Françafrique is over. Sovereignty is indisputable, we must stop sticking this label of French backyard to our countries.” “The French control the currency of these states,” El Harif told me. “They have many military bases [in the Sahel region], and their corporations plunder the natural resources of these countries, while pretending to combat terrorism.” When political challenges arise, the French have colluded in assassinating leaders who challenge their authority (such as Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara in 1987) or have had them arrested and jailed (such as Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo in 2011).

Why Is Françafrique Over?

In a recent interview with Atalayar, France’s former ambassador to Mali Nicolas Normand blamed the rising anti-French sentiment on “the repeated anti-French accusations of Mali’s prime minister and the virulent media campaign carried out by Russia on social media, accusing France of looting Mali and actually supporting the jihadists by pretending to fight them, with fake videos.” Indeed, Mali’s prime minister before August 22, 2022, Choguel Maïga, made strong statements against French military intervention in his country. In February 2022, Maïga told France 24 that the French government “have tried to divide his country by fueling autonomy claims in the north.” Malian singer Salif Keïta posted a video in which he said, “Aren’t you aware that France is financing our enemies against our children?” accusing France of collaborating with the jihadis.

Meanwhile, about the accusation that the Russian Wagner Group was operating in Mali, Maïga responded in his interview with France 24 and said that “The word Wagner. It’s the French who say that. We don’t know any Wagner.” However, Mali, he said in February, is working “with Russia cooperators.” Following an investigation by Facebook in 2020, it removed several social media accounts that were traced back to France and Russia and were “going head to head in the Central African Republic.”

In an important article in Le Monde in December 2021, senior researcher at Leiden University’s African Studies Center Rahmane Idrissa pointed out three reasons for the rise in anti-French sentiment in the Sahel. First, France, he said, “is paying the bill in the Sahel for half a century of military interventions in sub-Saharan Africa,” including France’s protection of regimes “generally odious to the population.” Second, the failure of the war against the jihadists has disillusioned the public regarding the utility of the French project. Third, and this is key, Idrissa argued that the inability of the military rulers in the region “to mobilize the population against an enemy (jihadist),” against whom they have no real strategy, has led to this anger being turned toward the French. The departure of the French, welcome as it is, “will certainly not resolve the jihadist crisis, ” Idrissa noted. The people will feel “sovereign,” he wrote, “even if part of the territory remains in the hands of terrorist gangs.”

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

France’s Influence in Africa Faces Strains From Locals and Foreign Competitors

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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.