Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio has generated controversy in France by suggesting the country is preventing the economic development of Africa and thereby contributing to the flow of refugees into Europe. But how fair is this characterisation of French policies across the continent? Douglas Yates presents a detailed account of French involvement in Africa, noting that there remain a number of paradoxes in how Paris chooses to engage with its African partners.

When President Charles de Gaulle granted French African colonies independence in 1960, he managed to successfully prevent them from automatically breaking the close links that had been forged with their former colonial metropole. He viewed granting of their independence as a price to be paid to maintain close cultural and economic ties, while avoiding the heavy costs of wars of independence.

Fifty-nine years after independence the most decisive diplomas are still handed out by French professors in French universities that are, not without reason, subordinate to French interests in Africa. Francophone Africans continue to listen to news on French Radio (RFI), watch French television (France24, TV5), read French newspapers (Le Monde), publish with French editors (Harmattan, Karthala) and attend public schools in Africa in which French is the primary language. Through the vehicle of education, French history, French philosophy, and French literature continues to shape their minds.

Partnership or domination?

When looking at francophone Africa, a troubling question arises. Why were the two large federations of French Equatorial Africa and French West Africa broken up into 13 small and hardly viable states? The weakness of the newly independent states of francophone Africa appears in retrospect to have been a conscious effort by the French to preserve their dominance. Indeed, what better way to perpetuate close relations than to split the empire into many dependent mini-states averaging a few million souls each? Dealt with individually by France, these weak, financially strapped countries would be less likely to be adventurous and would possess far less bargaining power than would two large, more financially secure federations.

Aid is one of the mechanisms of cooperation used by France to perpetuate dependency. France has been and remains one of francophone African states’ principal creditors, using aid the same as both a carrot and stick in its dealings with its former colonial states. France is the world’s fourth biggest development aid donor in terms of budget. Sub-Saharan Africa is the primary beneficiary of French aid. Yet aid-in-kind provided by France has bred dependency by providing essential goods and services without providing the know-how needed to produce them. Financial aid provided in the form of grants, loans, direct investments, and project aid has also fostered dependence. Much of it is tied aid which requires African recipients to spend it on purchasing French supplies and services. When aid comes in the form of loans, it creates a debt burden that turns debtors into veritable client states of the Paris Club.

French forces continue to have a presence in several African countries, Credit: Mission de l’ONU au Mali – UN Mission in Mali (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Monetary policy has been another instrument of economic domination in the former empire. The CFA franc was established by France in the aftermath of the Second World War as a currency for its African colonies. Stability of the CFA franc has been insured by Banque de France, which guaranteed convertibility into French francs and is represented on the board of directors of the zone’s two sub-regional central banks. When the French franc disappeared at the end of the century, Banque de France continued to run the CFA franc, pegged to the euro.

Critics point out that membership in the CFA franc zone is synonymous with poverty and unemployment, as evidenced by the fact that 11 of its 15 member states are classified as least-developed countries. The value of the CFA franc had been widely criticised as being too high, which many economists believe favours the urban elite of the African countries, who can buy imported manufactured goods cheaply at the expense of farmers, who cannot easily export agricultural products. Is the currency too strong or too weak? Disputes about the optimal exchange rate can be misleading. The true value of the CFA franc is not economic. It is political. For the member states of the franc zone have no national monetary policy of their own. The making of monetary policy for these countries remains with France.

Paradoxes in Françafrique

It is paradoxical how France is both too strong and too weak in its former empire in Africa, and how its multiple strategies employed to maintain its influence are either too much or not enough. The excessive cultural assimilation of the French language and French education has been unable to isolate francophone Africans from the larger influences of an increasingly English-speaking world. The monetary cage of the CFA franc casts a vast currency net across fourteen African countries yet has failed to keep out the global influence of the almighty US dollar. Pre-positioned French forces are strategically stationed at four permanent military bases for rapid humanitarian interventions, but do not contain enough troops to actually win a war. The annual provision of financial aid and developmental assistance somehow never seems to be enough to jump start development in an Africa elsewhere booming with high rates of growth. Meanwhile the autocratic puppets placed in political power by Paris have distributed their dependency, and cultivated diplomatic ties with rising economic Asian powers.

Consider the matter of French military interventions during and after the Cold War. According to one estimate by Canadian political scientist Bruno Charbonneau, France staged 122 African military interventions, counter-insurgency missions, combat support operations, peacekeeping interpositions, peace security operations, and non-combatant evacuations between 1945 and 2005. France signed eight secretive defence accords with Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Comoros, Djibouti, Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Togo. As a consequence of these accords, the presence of pre-positioned French troops has been maintained in Djibouti (3,000 troops), Gabon (600), Côte d’Ivoire (550), Senegal (1,100), and Chad (700).

But when one reviews the extensive literature on French peacekeeping interventions in Africa, one finds criticism coming from all quarters. In addition to the concerns by realists that France has consistently tried to impose its own national agenda through UN peacekeeping operations, and by liberal idealists that it has privileged non-intervention over the responsibility to protect, there are other concerns, especially within France itself, that French economic and military power has been on the decline for decades, that France no longer invests itself wholeheartedly as it used to. According to this decline-and-fall or end-of-empire critique, if France continues to invest itself too much in African peacekeeping operations then it will incur harmful opportunity costs that threaten its own security.

In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Yale political scientist Paul Kennedy argued that ascendancy of a great power over the long term is correlated strongly with its resources and economic durability, and that military overstretch and relative decline are the consistent threat facing powers whose ambitions and security requirements are greater than their resource base can provide. French peacekeeping missions may perhaps maintain France’s image as a great power in the world system, and preserve its reputation as still able to project power on the African continent. But over-extension may result in French armed forces being unable to accomplish not just the goals of peacekeeping missions in Africa: protecting civilians, defeating terrorists, preventing genocide. Overstretch might also leave France in a position so reduced that it will not be able to defend itself.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Douglas Yates – American Graduate School in Paris
Douglas Yates is a Professor at the American Graduate School in Paris. He is an expert on African politics and has published several books on the subject, including The Scramble for African Oil: Oppression, Corruption and War for Control of Africa’s Natural Resources (Pluto Press, 2012) and The French Oil Industry and the Corps des Mines in Africa (Africa World Press, 2009).

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