“Between France and Africa, it should be a love story.” With these words, the French president Emmanuel Macron sealed a speech he gave in Ouagadougou three years ago concerning the salvation of the atypical relationship that France has had with its former colonies. Yet, the 2021 wave of youth upheavals that swept across francophone West Africa in Senegal, Niger, and Mali thirsting for transparency and dignified leadership suggests otherwise, leaning towards resentment and hostility against the former colonizer. Words employed in these uprisings range from “neo-colonialism” to “resource plundering” and “monetary servitude,” invoking the question: where should we draw the line between fantasized African victimization and corrosive French exploitation? This all boils down to addressing the infamous elephant in the room called Françafrique, which has proven to be a delicate undertaking.
Known initially as France-Afrique and coined by the first president of Côte d’Ivoire Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1956, the term was restyled as Françafrique by the economist and author François-Xavier Verschave in 1998. Simply put, it refers to France’s sphere of influence in Africa in the post-colonial era from 1960 to the end of the 20th century, which was marked by neocolonial practices with the connivance of African elites. However, with the advent of Democratic multi-partyism and the rise of political awareness in Western Africa in the 1980s, the positive connotation associated with France-Afrique, the seeds of which were meticulously implanted in the collective conscience by fathers of independence such as Houphouët-Boigny and Senghor, started fading and gave rise to an increasingly hostile attitude among the African population towards France. The new negative connotation of Françafrique was not only a change in spelling, but also newfound defiance towards France’s persistent colonial attitude and interference in countries that have supposedly gained political independence, but still seem to keep being ruled from the outside.
This incited a plethora of reprisals against African leaders who openly proclaimed their divergence with France’s way of operating on the continent, be it political, cultural, or economic. Understanding the history of these divergences is essential in order to avoid Churchill’s well-known aphorism of “history being written by the victors.” Post-colonial France was heavily engaged in the ousting of insubordinate African leaders, including Guinea’s Sékou Touré in 1959 through the “Persil” Operation, Mali’s Modibo Keïta in 1962 by a military coup, and Togo’s Sylvanus Olympio assassination a year later. The arguably most notorious example, the 1987 assassination of Burkina Faso’s charismatic socialist African president Thomas Sankara, completes the list.
Conversely, no less than three French presidents, namely Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron have tried to mitigate the disreputable perception of France’s foreign policy in its former colonies by proclaiming the death of Françafrique. Yet, modern-day Françafrique, though less visible, still underpins the 21st century French-African relationship. As evidence suggests, Paris has repeatedly missed the mark in its attempts at recreating fair and unbiased foundations to its foreign policy with West Africa. In Côte d’Ivoire, France’s double standards in the recent Ivorian electoral crisis significantly contributed to the re-election of authoritarian Alassane Ouattara in 2020. At the same time, the Elysée maintained the unconstitutional endorsement of the son of late former president Idris Déby Itno, perpetuating an unpopular 30-year dynasty in Chad. It is all the more logical that the frustration of populations across the region grew and manifested in the looting of French supermarket chains and grocery stores in Senegal, or in the demonstrations in Mali that called for anti-jihadist French military troops to leave the country.
The underlying factor that ignited the Senegalese upheavals is, beyond the unlawful arrest of a political opponent, the monopoly of French multinational companies in the country, a symbol of economic neocolonialism. The freedom of transfer of capitals, one of the four pillars of the CFA franc currency, facilitates such a situation. These demonstrations came as a surprise owing to the fact that Senegal is traditionally considered – along with Côte d’Ivoire – as a pro-French nation with political leaders that have been praised for democratic endeavours and numerous prominent cultural figures in francophone literature and arts, not to mention its influential diaspora living in France. However, what analysts failed to notice is the shift in political awareness that occurred in the 2010s with the rise of a new generation of globally-minded social activists. Not only do they thirst for democratic values, but they also do not identify with the non-transparent oligopoly perpetuated by France in its former colonies.
Ultimately, it is important to distinguish between critical attitudes towards the underlying exploitative system maintained by the disastrous policies of France in Africa and anti-French sentiment founded on grudges, which remains counter-productive in the end. When the finger is pointed at Françafrique, the denunciation aims not at the average French citizen or even France as a nation-state, but at a structure upon which amore than half a century of monetary dependency, illegitimate paternalism and infringement of sovereignty are built. What is now taking place on this part of the continent is not a nationalist anti-French resentment, but a patriotic pro-African feeling crystallized into a desire to collaborate not just with France but also with the rest of the world on equal terms. However, on the other side of the aisle, the corrupted African elites who maintain this oppressive system while gaining the Elysée’s political support in return should not go unnoticed since it takes two to tango. The latter is the West African population’s responsibility, and they are determined to take it seriously.
France’s reckoning with its neo-colonial policies on the continent and its respect of the people’s will to manage African economic and political affairs without Paris’ interference is the only way out of this predicament. Whether this love-hate relationship will lead to an ugly divorce, as suggested by the rallying cries of “France dégage!” or “Frexit,” or give rise to a new prenuptial agreement based on fairness and mutual consent will solely depend on Paris. France must be willing to put aside its economic and political interests in the region and for once let Africans be the main protagonists of their own destiny. That will happen first and foremost by not hijacking the regional currency set to replace the CFA franc, namely the ECO, from West African countries including non-francophone ones. France must cease instrumentalizing unpopular heads of states such as Alassane Ouattara to legitimize its envisioned currency reform, when it actually is mere symbolic change rather than liberation of the system of monetary dependence that sustains the CFA currency.
President Macron’s acknowledgement of France’s responsibilities in the Tutsi genocide during his May 2021 visit to Rwanda is a welcome step to building memorial peace on the continent. Words will not, however, suffice to appease the growing hostility towards France in its former West African pré carré. It will take concrete political actions since francophone Africans have eventually become immune to the rhetoric that has too often failed them. The sooner Paris and its African diplomatic counterparts understand this, the better. A structural change in French-African relationship is not just timely — it is long-overdue.
Edited by Sandra Edelbacher