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La Françafrique N’est Plus: The Impact of France's Diminishing Role in sub-Saharan Africa

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Deep Dive Article

By Toby Gill

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Without Africa there will not be any history of France in the 21st century”

- François Mitterand, Former President of France, 1958

France’s influence in sub-Saharan has long been a point of contention. For decades, France has maintained enormous economic authority over its former colonies, much to the criticism of local activists and charities. But France’s sway in the region is waning.

In January, hundreds demonstrated in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, against French involvement in the region, calling for the withdrawal of French troops. This follows the complete withdrawal of French soldiers from Mali last year, after years of violence and a failure by the French to quell local insurgencies. Similarly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is in the process of establishing a new common currency in the region, to break away from the French-controlled CFA franc currency they currently use. So, with an enormous socio-economical shift away from France, and with Russia being increasingly seen as a force-for-good on the continent, is France’s position in Africa tenable, and what could an increasingly sovereign sub-Saharan Africa look like?

‘La Françafrique’ refers to France’s sphere of influence in former French and Belgian colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. The term was coined by the first President of the Côte d’Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1955. The term remains applicable today. When decolonisation movements were gaining traction across the African continent after the Second World War, France granted independence to most of its sub-Saharan colonies relatively fast, in comparison to other European colonial powers. But they maintained significant sway over their former colonies through various means, including through the creation of the African Financial Community (CFA).

Today, the CFA zone is comprised of 13 nations, many of them former French colonies, with a combined population of over 158 million, almost 12% of Africa’s population. The zone even has its own common currency, the CFA franc. The CFA franc has historically been championed by Paris as a means of keeping inflation low; it was pegged to the French franc, and then the Euro with a fixed exchange rate. Whilst the adoption of this currency has enabled CFA zone states to keep lower rates of inflation than their neighbours, critics have labelled it exploitative and outdated.

The conditions of the CFA franc dictate that member states have to keep 50% of their foreign currency reserves in the French treasury, plus an additional 20% for financial liabilities, meaning many of these states have surrendered their financial and fiscal freedoms. Critics of the currency point to this issue of monetary sovereignty, arguing that as the African member states have no power to issue their own legal tender, determine the value of the currency or regulate the use of that currency, they are being restrained. Ultimately, the current system also sees a significant portion of the national income of these nations being redirected to the French coffers.

One such example of the one-sidedness of this agreement can be found in 1994. In the face of economic stagnation in the CFA zone, France tackled the problem by devaluing the CFA franc by 50%, to boost the economy. It was successful at bolstering exports, and thus resurging the agricultural, textile and manufacturing industries, but it disproportionately benefitted those in France. On the ground in West Africa, inflation soared, inequality gaps widened, and the over-exportation of goods caused an economic downturn.

Today, the situation is similar. The French influence over the currency is not preventing inflation and has stifled economic development in the region for decades. Political pressure is undoubtedly mounting on leaders to scrap the CFA franc, and to regain economic independence. The ECOWAS is doing just this. Under proposed plans, eight West African states are striving to scrap the West African CFA franc, in favour of a new common currency, the ’Eco’. The Eco will be pegged to the Euro like the CFA franc but will eliminate the requirements for member states to lodge half of their foreign currency reserves in the French Treasury. It will grant greater autonomy to the Central bank of West African States to control their own currency. The Eco is expected to be introduced in 2027, and it will mark a monumental shift away from European influence on the continent.

The turning tides are not just limited to economic issues. The abandonment of the CFA franc coincides with a bitterness towards French military interventions in sub-Saharan Africa too. For nine years, the French military spearheaded Operation Barkhane, a strategic operation designed to eradicate the jihadist insurgencies in Mali and the Sahel region. The operation has been widely criticised for its ineffectiveness, and Malian leaders argue that the French have exacerbated the conflict in recent years.

This backlash has forced France into a precarious position and has stunted their operations significantly. Following a military coup in Mali in 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a drawdown of Barkhane forces, before eventually announcing the complete withdrawal in February 2022. The ruling military junta in Mali is not free from controversy, however. According to Human Rights Watch, the Malian military, along with Russian Wagner Group mercenaries, executed over 300 civilians in March 2022. Regardless, this move towards the cold embrace of Russia highlights a common trend among the Francophone countries in the region. France’s military operations have failed to suppress the threat of insurgent groups in the Sahel region; the French dominated CFA franc has failed to facilitate the economic growth promised decades ago. For African civilians and leaders alike, the pros don’t even come close to the cons. But international observers are wary of increased Russian influence.

In Mali, the ruling junta announced last year the cessation of their defence agreements with France and have expressed a willingness to work with other nations, including Russia, in a bid to stop the fighting. But many Malians have expressed uneasiness about the shift away from France. Ali Nouhoum Diallo, former president of Mali’s National Assembly said:

“Mali can work with different partners to unify the country, but thinking the Russians will come here and die for Mali? No. You’re fooling yourself.”

Nonetheless, the pendulum has swung, and public opinion in West Africa is seemingly against French involvement. Following the French withdrawal from Mali, there have been protests against their troop deployments in Niger in August last year, and more recently in Burkina Faso. The pressure is growing on France. But the question is, will ousting France simply create a power vacuum for another global power to fill?

This is a difficult question to predict. The obvious contender to step in is Russia. They have been playing an increasingly important role in West Africa, especially militarily. In September 2022, Captain Ibrahim Traoré launched a coup in Burkina Faso, much to the disdain of the African Union, the EU and the US. But the reaction from Russia was a stark contrast. Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and head of the mercenary Wagner Group, championed Traoré and said the power grab was a necessary good. With much of the Sahel region plagued by insurgencies and violence, many in the region are turning to the brutal effectiveness of the Wagner Group. France’s failure to provide adequate security has pushed many civilians and military juntas into Moscow’s open arms.

The Wagner Group has been operating in Africa for years, most famously in Libya, where their operations were revealed by an independent investigation in 2021. Although, it is not clear how the Wagner Group’s operations in West Africa have been impacted since the Russian invasion of Ukraine It’s known that Wagner mercenaries have been redirected to the frontlines, but exact figures are near impossible to know. Similarly unclear is how effective the Russian mercenaries would be at suppressing the insurgencies. Wagner has been known to employ brutal tactics and has been accused of various massacres across the African continent, but they could very well become bogged down in the fighting, facing the same logistical issues as the French soldiers. Nonetheless, the military junta in Mali favours the ruthlessness of Wagner soldiers and similar sentiment exists among many in West Africa who want an end to the conflict.

Ultimately, one can hope that with the adoption of the Eco currency across West Africa, and the withdrawal of French troops across the region, these African nations will assume more sovereignty and autonomy. Although, if the Eco is implemented as a common currency, the West African Central Bank will not be able to turn to France for loans or aid, or they risk backtracking and reinstating France’s control. France has maintained that it will support the peg of the Eco to the Euro but should countries using the Eco not be able to pay for their imports, France would cover these payments. The catch is that this would trigger France’s return to the bank’s monetary policy committee, reducing their monetary sovereignty once more. It's a precarious position for the sub-Saharan countries.

Stuck between an exploitative French system, or dangerous and unlawful Russian support, many in sub-Saharan Africa simply want an end to the violence and want to secure their national and monetary sovereignty.


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