A Dying Françafrique?
On why France is no longer the unchallenged major global power in francophone Africa and what it means for the region (and for France)
I: Declining French economic and political influence
In a recent tweet the French defense minister, Sebastien Lecornu, complained about the portrayal of French troops in the popular film, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. A scene in the film portrays a group of mercenaries, who appear to be French, being paraded for conspiring to steal the mythical Wakanda’s resources. Lecornu’s prickliness over the alleged negative depiction of French soldiers in the film succinctly captures the current moment in Africa-France relations.
France’s influence in its former colonies in Africa is facing its severest test in decades. Protests against the CFA, dubbed “the last colonial currency,” have grown louder in recent years. Among other things, the currency arrangement effectively denies 14 African countries monetary policy sovereignty and requires them to deposit half their reserves with the French treasury. Consequently, it is now fairly mainstream to call for the end of the CFA. Reasonable commentators on the matter often point to the dual problem of a lack of monetary policy sovereignty and France’s historical distortionary political machinations (like coups, corruption, support for autocrats) to maintain the currency zone and the dependency of its members.
Regular reminders of France’s history of colonial pillaging in the region, like court cases of corruption and bribery involving French firms (often shared through WhatsApp memes) have reinforced negative perceptions of France. Degrading comments about Africans by French leaders have not helped. The more Paris directly intervenes in its former colonies’ economic, political, and security affairs, the more publics in those countries are reminded of France’s uniquely destabilizing (and pro-autocratic) postcolonial record in Africa.
Importantly, France is no longer the undisputed major power when it comes to francophone African countries’ foreign relations. The last two decades have seen China supplant France as these countries’ largest trade partner. China is now a bigger trade trade partner for African states than the United States, the United Kingdom, and France combined. More recently, countries like the Central African Republic (CAR), Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali have forged closer security ties with Russia. Regional trade with Russia remains flat over the same period.
France’s situation looks even worse when one considers its share of total trade to/from its former African colonies. Among these countries, French share of trade plummeted from more than a quarter in the early 1990s to just over 5%. French dominance of francophone economies is just not what it used to be. While the CFA may still exist as an important influence transmission mechanism from Paris, the trade mechanism has grown substantially weaker over the last two decades.
Political developments in a number of francophone countries have compounded these economic shifts. Burkina Faso and Mali, both of which until recently hosted thousands of French troops in the war against jihadists in the Sahel, ordered Paris to withdraw its soldiers. The two countries, together with Guinea and the Central African Republic (CAR) have since moved closer to Russia to get security assistance without too many strings attached or French neocolonial baggage. These days Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is a regular visitor in West Africa, with the infamous Wagner Group, emerging as a major security partner for these states (stay tuned for a post on what to make of Russia’s recent forays in Africa).
The changing alliance structure has introduced a wedge issue among francophone African states. As things stand, Chad and Niger are the last outposts of unchallenged French influence in the Sahel. Should those governments fall in the hands of revisionist leaders, governments in Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Senegal, and Togo will likely face popular pressure to publicly demonstrate (at least symbolic) distance from Paris.
II: Its geopolitics, stupid
The stakes are high for France. Without its geopolitical stranglehold on its former African colonies, France would be just Italy with nukes and a seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Now being a nuclear-armed Italy with a UNSC seat is nothing to sneer at, but it nonetheless would mean a significant downgrade of French global influence (including within the European Union). Francophone African countries accord France not just votes at the United Nations and other international organizations, but also strategic clout on the global stage.
The point here is that France’s biggest headache is not the loss of trade share. After all, trade with Africa has always comprised a minuscule share of French trade (less than 3%). Trade with former colonies have remained well below 1% of total French trade for the better part of the decade. Notice that trade between France and its former colonies in the region has been less than half of total French trade in Africa since the early 2000s.
More than the changing trade patterns, it is the erosion of economic dependency (French share of former colonies’ trade) and the arrival of new major power competitors in the form of China and Russia that must worry Paris the most.
Trends in the United Nations generally assembly voting data reinforce the notion of declining French influence in the region (see below). The average voting similarity index between France and its former African colonies is trending downwards. For 20 years after the end of the Cold War there was a discernible increase in voting similarity (a number of francophone states previously leaned towards the Soviet Union). However, since around 2010 the trend has been downward towards levels last seen during the Cold War.
As France scrambles to regain its footing, policymakers should appreciate the fact that it pays to have strong allies. The reason China was able to completely dominate trade with francophone states is because they still largely export raw commodities and import cheap consumer goods. It is the same dependency that Paris has cultivated for decades, except now on a much bigger scale. Similarly, the incidences of political decay and erosion of state power being witnessed in CAR, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, can partially be attributed to French strategic blunders and inference that stifled genuine political development in those states.
Instead of investing in strong postcolonial allies, for six decades France chose to craft a neocolonial system of economic, political, and security dependency known as françafrique. Now the chickens have come home to roost. Rather than insulting the intelligence of Malians or Burkinabes by, for example, suggesting that their present (admittedly suboptimal) choices of security alliances are the result of Russian anti-French propaganda, French policymakers should seek to understand how the last 60 years and beyond led to the current situation.
In short, the publics in francophone Africa do not need Russian or Chinese tutelage to form opinions on France. They know their history.
III: What does all this mean for French Africa policy?
It is still unclear whether Paris has fully internalized the real causes of declining French influence in its former colonies. Consequently, it is unlikely that there will be any appreciable changes in French Africa policy. Instead, the following are more likely.
France will double down to avoid contagion from the radical independence demonstrated by Burkina Faso, CAR, Guinea, Mali. Despite being expelled from Burkina Faso and Mali, France still maintains military bases in Chad and Niger. And this week it announced plans to beef up military presence in Cote d’Ivoire as a substitute to Burkina Faso. It is also likely that France will drive a wedge between “loyalist” countries and the “rebellious” quartet of CAR, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali. However, this move comes with risks. Should France overplay its hand against the quartet (e.g., regime change), the likely popular backlash may make it difficult to do business even with the loyalist countries.
Soft power in former colonies will buy Paris time (although it is not clear how much more time). About half of all foreign students in French institutions of higher learning are from Africa. Francophone African elites still consume a fair amount of French cultural products. Barring any major surprises, France will continue to encounter a fairly low cost of doing business with francophone countries besides the quartet. That said, shifts in public opinion can happen fairly quickly, especially in a world where French officials choose to ignore the impacts of French policy on public opinion. Such developments would put elites in important electoral democracies like Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Benin on the defensive and force them to publicly perform their independence from Paris.
France will diversify its portfolio of power projection to include non-francophone states. Maintaining good relations with key African organizations, like the African Union (AU) or Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is critical to French influence in the region. As long as the AU, ECOWAS and other regional organizations remain friendly, France can afford to lose support among a few former colonies and still project itself as a global broker on African affairs.
As noted above, within Africa the share French trade with former colonies is already smaller than with the rest of the region. France will likely continue with recent efforts to encourage its private sector to venture beyond the françafrique community. The diversification will likely take the form of both foreign direct investments and official development assistance. France allocates about one third of its bilateral aid (a total of $3b) to African countries.
The structural problem of pursuing a policy not fit for purpose will not go away. As long as French Africa policy continues to rely on personal connections, secret diplomacy, unaccountable autocratic governments, and corrupt networks comprising African elites, French firms, and French politicians, Paris will struggle to regain lost ground in its former colonies and the wider region.
It is worth noting that françafrique’s historical endurance primarily depended on the sheer force of pivotal personalities involved — from Felix Eboue securing colonial French Equatorial Africa for “Free France” under Charles de Gaulle; to the person of Jacques Foccart, who for decades orchestrated French Africa policy; to longtime African allies like Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Leopold Senghor, Omar Bongo, Blaise Compaore, and Idris Deby. Without adequate replacements of these personalities, France cannot hope to succeed with the same historical policy posture. These days African elites have reason to make friends elsewhere. Electoral democracy means that many have short time horizons. It has also become very hard to ignore public opinion, including in electoral autocracies. Consequently, the overt French personalist neocolonialism of yesteryears is just not kosher anymore.
Does often fractious French foreign policy establishment have the will or capacity to learn the right lessons in the current moment? Only time will tell.
>Francophone African elites still consume a fair amount of French cultural products.
I believe this is widely underestimated.
Even the "rebel" leaders (and the part of the public opinion that support them) have a very France-centric worldview and are in many ways francophiles. So it could be very easy for any leader to obtain some symbolic/performative concessions here and there to convince their public opinion that they're not being stepped on.
Furthermore, this cultura lock-in has a much stronger effect than the CFA or any military treaty.
Could you share gross trade amounts instead of percentage share? I suspect, that trade volumes have increased, even inflation adjusted, while trade with China has increased so much proportionally to push their percentage down. China has increased trade massively with the world over, so that you could write this same article about any other country on a narrative of decreased percentage of trade. The story is not, these countries pulling away from their former trading partners, it’s that they move to China. If you wanted to make the argument that you have, you’d need to compare African trade with another established colonial power who has neutrally perused trade is the region, such as the UK. From your graph, they’ve declined at the same rate