- A Janus-faced entity – one African, the other French – Françafrique is the ultimate symbol of confiscated, perverted sovereignty. This singular coinage perfectly illustrates France’s dogged refusal to decolonize.
- Proving a link between the presence of French troops in Françafrique and French control of governments is a complex task that would require details of treaties and documents often classified.
- Nkrumah outlines in his definition of neocolonialism as that of control of the neocolonial State through “economic or monetary means”. This form of control is one where trade is made exclusive or through the “imposition of a banking system controlled by the imperial power”.
- French interests and influence are undeniably present at a range of levels of government and policy decision-making throughout the governmental and institutional structures of its ex-colonies.
To this day, academics have scarcely found substantial consensus on the precise end of French colonialism. Some scholars consider the establishment of the “French Community” in 1958 or Vanuatu’s independence day some two decades later to be suitable dates marking the end of the French Empire. However, others would argue that French colonialism never in fact ended, rather it adapted to the times and took on the nebulous form of neo-colonialism to survive. This text aims to demonstrate the ways in which French colonialism still lives on today in the “Françafrique” zone, by first defining the term “Neocolonialism” through Kwame Nkrumah’s own definition, to then analyze the economic, governmental, and military relationships France currently holds with its ex-colonies and assessing whether these bonds reflect a partnership between independent countries or chains by which ex-colonies find themselves bound in obedience to a modern French “Empire” that refuses to identify as one.
First published in 1965, Kwame Nkrumah’s landmark book, “Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism” was put forward as an extension of the Marxist-Leninist perspective to the international stage, wherein Nkrumah “rationalized the complex interconnectedness and dynamic nature of the multiple agencies of imperial domination”. The idea central to Nkrumah’s theory was that countries ensnared by neocolonialism, such as African nations formerly ruled by colonial powers, were living in a state of illusory independence with the “outward trappings of international sovereignty” but with their “economic system, and thus political policy directed from outside”. Although Nkrumah was not the first to use the term — that title belongs to Jean-Paul Sartre — he was the first to popularise it and to outline a comprehensive description and critique of neocolonialism. We will focus on an understanding of the term “Neocolonialism” based on the characteristics that Nkrumah outlines early on in the introduction to his book, namely:
- The garrison of troops in the neocolonial State and partial or complete control of the country or government through military presence.
- Control of government through economic or monetary means.
- Power over the State by the provision of civil servants in policy-making positions and payments to State leaders
Françafrique: A brief history of the scandalous word
A Janus-faced entity – one African, the other French – Françafrique is the ultimate symbol of confiscated, perverted sovereignty. This singular coinage perfectly illustrates France’s dogged refusal to decolonize. And as Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop notes, as such it continues to beget little monsters. Year after year, France suffers defeat in African regions. While still considering itself the rightful master of the continent, Paris cannot accept the fact of losing control in various African countries.
“Françafrique” is a term referring to France’s sphere of influence in Africa, particularly its ex-colonies. The term was derived from the expression France-Afrique, which was used by the first president of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, in 1955 to describe his country’s close ties with France. It was later renamed Françafrique by François-Xavier Verschave in 1998 to criticize the alleged corrupt and clandestine activities of various Franco-African political, economic, and military networks. The methods have changed, but the main objectives – the exploitation of African resources and lands – remain the same. From Cameroon to Senegal, through Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, and all the former colonies of Francophone Africa, France does its best to maintain its waning influence
Intellectuals from countries like Nigeria, Kenya, or Mozambique may not be familiar with the composite neologism Françafrique. It’s not only because it’s a French invention, but it already exists under a different term in their own country or doesn’t care about french intention on Africa. Actually, Françafrique refers to a unique and absolutely fascinating political phenomenon: the continuous subjugation of supposedly sovereign African states – Burkinafaso, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, to name a few – by their former colonial master, in this case, France. The process started in the mid-fifties and early sixties when defeats in Indochina and then in Algeria persuaded Paris that it was wiser to grant nominal independence to its colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa while keeping a tight rein on them. Gradually, the French Empire switched from brutal overseer to absentee landlord.
On the one hand, African heads of state were handpicked by Charles de Gaulle, who served as president of France from 1958 until 1969. After two “ job interviews,” first with Jacques Foccart, General de Gaulle’s trusted advisor on African matters, then with de Gaulle himself, who if the first screening was conclusive. Nothing was ever said on record, of course, but the African president thus “elected” was neither foolish nor foolhardy, and knew what was expected of him: to put the resources of his country at France’s disposal and routinely vote alongside the latter at the UN.
To put it bluntly, this politician should never forget that he was nothing but a puppet, or that he must consider a foreign country’s interests before taking any decision or signing any bill. This approach is how France has maintained, since the sixties and up to the present day, its status as a “world power” wielding a modicum of clout, and feels more… independent vis-à-vis its powerful American ally! As long as the terms of this “gentlemen’s agreement” are complied with, the African president can toss his political opponents to the sharp-toothed, flesh-hungry crocodiles frothing in his private pond, crown himself emperor, embezzle and deposit billions in Swiss accounts, all without fearing the slightest rebuke. In any case, the well-oiled engine runs only through back channels and shady networks.
All this proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that some French presidents have shamelessly enriched themselves through such shenanigans. But Françafrique also entails more sinister aspects, like an orgy of political violence. For the truth is, Paris does not shy away from eliminating those who stand in the way, nor from intervening militarily, with boots on the ground if necessary, when popular revolts go overboard or when an unauthorized military coup threatens to put one of its precious stooges out of power.
In the following paragraphs, we will investigate the military, economic, and governmental aspects of France’s relationship with “Françafrique”, a term referring to France’s sphere of influence in Africa, particularly its ex-colonies. This article aims to target different examples of France’s contemporary behavior throughout Africa, rather than focusing on a single case study, to determine whether the Republic’s overall attitude and actions fit the framework and description of a neocolonial state according to Kwame Nkrumah.
The Military Aspect
For many scholars, the conclusion of the Algerian War and the signature of the 1962 French-Algerian “Evian Accords” marked the end of France’s colonial empire, as it gave birth to the Fifth Republic and arguably its last unilateral military action as a colonial power. And yet, for the past 60 years, France’s ability to “project military power on the continent and influence political events there has been crucial to the nation’s self-image and figure of grandeur as time marched on leaving France to feel increasingly smaller and smaller at the feet of emerging superpowers. As the French foreign minister, Louis de Guiringaud claimed in the 1970s, their military interventions allowed them to “change the course of history with 500 men”.
Going back to Nkrumah’s definition of neocolonialism, it is clear that one of the methods highlighted by the author for achieving neocolonial power — to “garrison the territory of the neocolonial State and control the government of it” — is one of great pertinence when studying France’s historical record. In fact, official figures show that in 2019, France maintained almost 9,000 troops in military bases all across its ex-colonies, with its largest in Djibouti, the “biggest permanent foreign establishment in Africa”. Two operations are currently underway in Africa by French forces, Operation Barkhane and Mission Corymbe. The former is a counter-terrorist operation in former French colonies and the latter a mission to protect the interests of French oil companies against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Troops have been maintained in place for decades across ex-colonies to protect French interests, from Orano’s uranium mines in Niger to Total’s oil wells in Gabon.
While proving a link between the presence of French troops in Françafrique and French control of governments is a complex task that would require details of treaties and documents often classified as State secrets on all sides, we do know that France has presence military base in at least 9 African countries. It has also been shown that the legal basis for the stationing of some of these troops is found in accords signed during the decolonization process when newly independent nations could have easily been swayed to keep French military bases inside their borders in exchange for aid and a sense of continued safety brought by an established world power such as France. Throughout its numerous interventions in the “post-colonial” decades, France has often been reportedly trading military assistance in terrorist and intranational conflicts for government support of French interests. In addition to this, it must be noted that the defense agreements, signed after the French ex-colonies declared independence contains articles that ensure that France keeps the right to “exclusive action in Francophone Africa”. In 1961, one of France’s top generals, General Revol, even claimed:
“It is evident that bases are necessary to us — first to go to the aid of those of our African partners who might be in difficulties, but equally to hold on to our place in the world”.
Going back to Nkrumah’s characteristic of neocolonialism, the case of Gabon stands out as a key example of France’s control over its ex-colonies through military presence. With its independence in 1960, Gabon signed accords with its former master, agreeing to many outcomes which can hardly be described as advantageous for the African nation. Gabon agreed in these treaties to allow French forces to circulate freely within its borders and airspace without approval by the Gabonese government, to use all necessary infrastructure, and to give France an exclusive right to military activity in Gabon. These rights are not reciprocal and thus France retains a form of paternalistic exclusivity, which in times of crisis when France’s interests are threatened, can serve as powerful leverage. On top of this, French military officers are entrenched into the Gabonese defenses at all levels, and Gabon is contracted through its treaties to buy its military equipment only from France.
These examples of historically embedded provisions and blue-blooded mentality demonstrate the way in which France did not simply garrison its troops in African ex-colonies to protect its allies. Rather there are compelling reasons to believe that France has made a point of keeping a strong military presence in Africa for two essential reasons. First, to maintain its status as a globally-active world power, involved on an international scale and able to display strength and power. Second, most importantly for this analysis, to keep a degree of control over the policy decisions of its ex-colonies by quid-pro-quo, involving military aid, training, and logistical support in exchange for France to keep a pied-a-terre in Françafrique, with, we can conclude, at least some influence over decisions taken on questions of military safety and defense.
France also maintains double standards in African politics by manipulating notions of democracy. For example, against the backdrop of recent events in Guinea, France condemned the coup, even though it had recently supported the military seizure of power in Chad. After the death of President Idriss Déby in April 2021, power in Chad passed to one of his sons, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, who was supported by the military. They dissolved the government and parliament, but the new junta was supported by the official Paris, which also had had nothing against the 30-year rule of Idriss Déby, who came to power by armed force.
France is becoming a threat to African countries. It brings enslavement, poverty, corruption, support for dictators, and, where it cannot hold power, chaos.
France intervenes directly in African affairs, as it did in 2011 in Cote d’Ivoire when French troops supported Alassane Ouattara and put this friend of George Soros and former employee of the International Monetary Fund in the presidency. A recent example, Paris’ shadow supported ex-President François Bozizé of the Central African Republic, who in December 2020 tried to disrupt democratic elections and launched an armed rebellion.
Of course, Paris is trying to maintain military and political control over the continent, wishing to retain the primary right to supply arms, train personnel, etc. Meanwhile, even the new interim head of Guinea, Mamady Doumbouya, who is assessed by many experts as a lobbyist for French interests, stressed in his speech that Guineans are annoyed by the arrogance of the French, and they observe a de facto segregation in the country. “The worldview of foreign soldiers in Africa has changed over time,” the new Guinean boss continued.
“In the past, the white man was necessarily considered a competent person, which is not the case now because we allow ourselves to look critically at their actions and their explanations thanks to our more advanced training.”
The Franc, Accords, and Power
The second, and perhaps in our economics-centered world, most pertinent, characteristic Nkrumah outlines in his definition of neocolonialism, is that of control of the neocolonial State through “economic or monetary means”. Nkrumah outlines this form of control as one where trade is made exclusive or through the “imposition of a banking system controlled by the imperial power”. Indeed, one of the most controversial links between France and its 15 ex-colonies is that of the “Franc CFA”. A pillar of French neocolonialism, the Franc of the Financial African Community — formerly named Franc of the French Colonies in Africa — was created as a shared currency for West African and Central African nations.
The rhetoric espoused by France was that of necessary protection of its colonies’ economies from the devaluation that came with the ratification of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1945. The CFA was divided along colonial lines into a Western Central Bank and an Equatorial Central Bank, each issuing their own form of CFA Franc effectively creating two zones of the shared currency. The CFA was fixed in parity against the Euro, and could only ever be adjusted if the French government and all the CFA Area members agreed on the change. France insisted it’s guaranteed and free convertibility into euros would enhance capital mobility and therefore increase investments throughout the CFA region. The advantages routinely referred to, still today, by the French authorities are reduced transaction costs and avoidance of exchange rate risks. Unfortunately, weak intraregional trade negates both of these advantages with just about 2.1% of the region’s trade being within borders of the CFAF.
In principle, the idea of a shared currency is not a bad one. Nor does it point to any sort of neocolonialism. However, in the case of the CFAF, many directives were written into law without much discussion, as France assured its colonies it was for their own good. CFAF members are required by law to deposit at least half of their national reserves into the French Treasury, where the money will sit in an operations account, controlled by the French government with no oversight allowed by the CFAF countries. Interest CFAF members are supposed to earn on their money in the operations account instead is sent back to them in the form of humanitarian aid packages, which are handed out as loans, effectively meaning that France’s ex-colonies are forced to deposit their money into an account, and pay long-term interests to receive the yearly interest they should earn on their money.
Additionally, the Board of Directors of the two CFAF zones must have members appointed by France, armed with veto powers and the ability to designate a bank governor. CFA members are not allowed to use their reserves sitting in the French treasury as collateral to obtain loans elsewhere, instead, the money shows up under France’s name, and is even added to French GDP. In this way, not only does France manage to keep paying products it imports from the zone in its own currency, therein saving large amounts in transaction and exchange costs, but it also essentially maintains complete control over the monetary and economic policy of the CFAF zone countries. Due to the fixed rate of exchange with the French franc and now the Euro, CFAF members experience competitiveness problems and massive capital flight. It is estimated for example that Senegal suffered from a 35% rate of over-evaluation in 2013, and Ivory Coast experienced around 40 billion USD of capital flight from 1970 to 2010.
These are real issues of sovereignty and dependency for the ex-colonies. The lack of control over their own monetary policy, due to the fixed exchange rate, translates to a lack of control over the economy and unique solutions from France for the entirety of the bloc in case of economic crises, instead of tailored directives, controlled and implemented by the individual governments. The African countries are also dependent on France for training and consultancy on accounting systems, as most of France’s ex-colonies have had their systems forcefully established to replicate the French accounting system, which is unique to France in all of its intricacies, giving them a special insight and position of power as the sole existing mentor in terms of accounting and finance.
Furthermore, Neocolonialism manifests itself in the unilateral exploitation of Africa’s resources. France is trying to maintain such preferences as an advantage in obtaining raw materials, as well as the priority of French interests and companies in the state procurement of African countries. Rooted in the accords that France’s ex-colonies signed with the French government as they obtained independence, is a pledge to give France prioritized access to its ex-colonies markets and newly discovered resources. This obscure language could be flaunted as a sign of very loose arrangements, but in fact, they have been used and continue to be used to this day under the guise of law and partnership.
If we take the example of Congo, the oil industry is dominated by the French company Total as they are allowed first access before companies of any other nation. But African resources are crucial to France, and thus this relationship is of existential value. In fact, a majority of France’s uranium, used for nuclear energy production which in the country accounts for around 80% of all power, is mined in Niger. If the African nation were to sell it to another country, France would have to pay more to either keep the resource or find another seller. Therein, France keeps a legal monopoly over its ex-colonies’ natural resources through legal documents successive governments do not dare to break. From prioritized access to new natural resources and awarding French companies construction contracts over local entrepreneurs, to control over the CFAF monetary union, France’s economic relationship with its African ex-colonies looks to have been extremely advantageous for the former colonial power.
Positions of Power & Aid as a Tool of Control
As we have so far demonstrated, French influence is undeniably present at a range of levels of government and policy decision-making. Nkrumah’s final characteristic of a neocolonial power is that of control over government through the positioning of civil servants in places where “they can dictate policy” or by “payments towards the cost of running the state”.
French civil servants, advancing French interests, are indeed present throughout the governmental and institutional structures of its ex-colonies. The aforementioned African Franc Central Banks, which control the monetary policy of the shared CAF currency, are spearheaded by French governors and board members, each given veto powers. On top of this, control of military bases and exclusive right to train military personnel gives France an intimate look into the defense of these nations and creates a system of dependency wherein they cannot go without French support as they become reliant on it. And while French generals and military leaders present in countries such as Mali or Ivory Coast could not realistically force the governments into any sort of specific action, their consistent presence and relationship with the higher echelons of the military could indicate to a certain degree of influence over defense policy.
In addition to French actors in positions of power and influence, development aid payments have often been used by France as a carrot to push the African nations to follow its directions. The stick, a complete retraction of aid, has been used before. And because many of France’s ex-colonies are dependent on aid, we find this “stick” to be disastrous for their economies. For example, when Sekou Touré of Guinea refused to sign the previously mentioned accords for access to independence and a new partnership with France,
“All French assistance to Guinea was immediately terminated, and all French personnel was abruptly withdrawn. Aid then becomes one of the mechanisms of cooperation used to condition dependence”.
Sitting at more than 10 billion euros, France’s annual aid budget is the fourth largest in the world, with almost half going to its ex-colonies. However, the great majority of this aid comes to the poorer countries not in the form of grants or direct investments, but rather in the form of loans which often are tied with strings forcing the receiving nations to spend it on French companies and products. In this way, development aid money can be used as leverage for France to obtain what it wants. Whether or not it would retract its money today when faced with an uncooperative trading partner, the same way that De Gaulle did in the 60s with Guinea, is however unsure. We could however posit that this has not happened many times throughout the past 60 years precisely because African leaders know the consequences of standing up to the French authority.
The search for an alternative
A wave of military coups amid international intervention is becoming the normal state of affairs in Africa. The proliferation of military coups on the continent is becoming an undeniable phenomenon. This trend is mainly due to the loss of influence of international and regional organizations designed to ensure respect for democracy, such as the African Union, ECOWAS, the United Nations, or the European Union. Against this background, China, Russia, and Turkey, which are expanding their influence in Africa and do not demand any democratic compensation for doing business, are winning.
Thus, African leaders are beginning to understand that doing pragmatic business on an equal footing is a chance for sovereignty. Neither the United States nor France offers an equal partnership, pursuing an essentially neocolonialist policy. Not surprisingly, more and more Africans prefer to do business with alternative partners. For example, the French recognize the significant growth of Turkey’s authority and influence on the continent. Le Monde’s article refers to fears about Turkey in the Sahel region, where security is the most acute issue.
The International Crisis Group notes a fierce geopolitical rivalry in the region, which increasingly worries France and other Western powers – especially in the south of the Sahara (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad). So far, Turkey’s interests in the Sahel have seemed mainly economic, but Ankara is showing more and more diplomatic and military interests in the countries. One striking indicator, the paper believes, was the signing of an agreement between Niger and Turkey that involves sending Turkish soldiers to Niger to train and support its forces in their fight against the terrorist organization Boko Haram. Ankara also agreed to help Africans secure the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. Jeune Afrique, citing an Africa leads poll, stresses that the image of Turkey, Qatar, and the Emirates is improving amid Paris’ declining credibility.
As for Africa’s other partner, Russia, cooperation is going well, especially in the economic and industrial fields. For example, mutually beneficial common projects include the supply of Russian equipment for metallurgical and mining companies as well as the development of a transport and logistics system (equipment for railroads, air transport, etc.). As a country with energy potential, Russia is also interested in participating in assistance in building energy infrastructure – everything that concerns oil and gas installations, as well as equipment for hydroelectric plants and nuclear power stations. The expansion of the presence of Russia’s major corporation Rosatom on the African continent (for example, the construction of the El Dabaa nuclear power plant in Egypt) is indicative.
At the same time, Paris is seriously concerned about the growing Russian influence in one of its most important countries in Africa – the Central African Republic, where Russian contractors play a major role in maintaining security. In its struggle for former influence, France has threatened to freeze budgetary aid and partially cut off military cooperation. But while France threatens a subordinate position, the CAR has effectively cooperated with Russia, voluntarily, constructively, and without pressure.
And, of course, there is a huge increase in the Chinese presence. The French media prefer to write caustically about Beijing’s lending to Africa, but never about mutually beneficial infrastructure deals. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, China has announced an increase in trade figures. Following the entry into force of the first continental free trade agreement (FTA) with Mauritius, China reiterated its desire to strengthen its position. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated the strengthening of cooperation in an interview with Xinhua News Agency and China Media Group in early January 2020, before embarking on an official tour of Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, and Tanzania.
Today Africa is the world leader in terms of development and consumption growth. Young people are expressing a desire to stay in their homeland and develop production locally. Thanks to cooperation with partners, African countries are developing their agriculture and chemical industries, as well as developing the energy and transport industries. The increased interest in developing relations with African countries on the part of other French competitors – the United States, India, the Gulf States, Brazil, Israel, Japan, and Korea – is not surprising.
Despite its losses, France is not yet going to completely abandon its neocolonialist ambitions. From October 7 to 9, Montpellier will host the Africa-France Summit which defines itself as a “new format, with new players, new themes and new challenges,” and which aims to “take a fresh look at the relationship between Africa and France, to offer a new framework for reflection and action to new generations. However, against the background of the successes of other partners, it seems more like a French cry of hopelessness in today’s realities.
If Kwame Nkrumah is right, in that “In place of colonialism as the main instrument of imperialism we have today neo-colonialism”, then France can surely be taken as a case study of neocolonialist behavior. Successive French governments have enjoyed tremendous benefits from the relationship they hold with their ex-colonies. Not only this but as observed, France’s control over its ex-colonies fit some extent within Nkrumah’s framework of neocolonialism. France maintains a military presence in a number of states and therein exerts military influence over some of the related policies as well as a sense of grandeur on the world stage.
Through post-colonial decrees, which have rarely been amended, French governments are able to claim effective control over the monetary and economic policy of the CFAF bloc and reserve the right of first access to newly discovered natural resources and public bidding. And finally, by positioning civil servants in spheres of direct influence, France manages to shape policy decisions to some degree in governmental institutions as well as through the double-edged sword that is developmental aid. Thus, while the Fifth French Republic may consider itself free of a colonial past it claims to regret and have moved on from, Kwame Nkrumah would very likely disagree, stating that their colonial deeds have simply morphed into neocolonial behavior that is today murkier, less obvious at first glance than classic colonialism, but nonetheless brings with it incredible potential for dependence, underdevelopment and ultimately: misery.