France’s strategy in Africa


    1.0 So what? 

    Since Senegal’s colonisation, Paris is one of the most influential international actors in Africa. Even after the formal decolonisation processes, France strategy tried to maintain a privileged relationship with its former colonies by sustaining favourable political leaders and intervening military several times. After 1962, the year of the fifth republic beginning, almost 44 percent of France’s Opération Exterieures (OPEX, foreign military operations) took place in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    Nevertheless, this influence is progressively contested on multiple fronts. The growing Russian presence, the skyrocketing anti-french sentiment, the inglorious termination of Opèration Barkhane and Opération Sabre’s expulsion from Burkina Faso in February 2023 are a few examples of Paris’s difficulties. 

    These drawbacks have led France to redesign its strategy across the continent more out of necessity than out of virtue. In particular, since the beginning of his first presidential term in 2017, Emmanuel Macron has become increasingly vocal about reforming the relationship between France and Sub-Saharan Africa. On 27 February 2023, before his African tournée in Central Africa, the French president announced the renewed strategic guidelines of the partnership with the continent.

    France OPEX per region since 1962 (Author’s reproduction from Charillon, 2019, La France dans le monde)

    2.0 Background and attitude  

    Macron dedicated the first part of its speech analysing the context and introducing France’s approach. Macron declares his willingness to render Paris’s Sub-Saharan politics more transparent and focused on the civil aspects rather than muscular interventions.  

    According to Macron, Sub-Saharan Africa has come to a historical watershed where multiple crises overlap. From security to the climatic challenge; from economic issues to sanitary and geopolitical shocks. This renders the next two decades essentially relevant for the continent. At the same time, the continent has bright growth prospects and the European economies will increasingly depend on it. 

    In the face of the revival of great power competition across the SSA, France will refuse to engage in  “anachronic competition” based on hard power. 

    “Ce temps-là a vécu”

    That time is over

    Conversely, Paris will adopt a “profoundly humble” standpoint, mainly focusing on mutually beneficial partnerships and dedicating its resources to civil projects in the entrepreneurial, scientific, artistic and sports domains. This will be pursued through a two-pronged strategy:

    1. Rethink the security deployment.
    2. Co-industrialisation and solidarity investments.

    3.0 Rethink the security deployment

    The necessity to reform Paris’ foreign military interventions emerged during the Toulon Presidency discourse when Macron announced the Op. Barkhane end in November 2022. Nevertheless, it was presented vaguely. This time, albeit remaining overall general, Paris exposed more details. Specifically, France will increment the troops’ integration with the host context, overcoming the “base logic”. Concretely, this change will manifest through:

    • Diminishing the on-field manpower, 
    • Sharing the military bases with Sub-Saharan troops, 
    • Incrementing the training offer and equipment supplies
    • Creation of regional hubs to foster the capacity to work together

    Additionally, rather than overarching missions spread on extensive territories (like Op. Barkhane), Paris will prefer implementing tailored operations based on the partners’ specific needs. 

    Finally, in order to optimise the partnerships outreach, Paris will reinforce its communication effort through a first tranche of 40 million euros for the embassies in francophone Africa. 

    4.0 Economic partnerships

    Macron underlines two major guiding principles Africa-France future economic partnerships. First, the implementation of a co-industrialisation philosophy, that is the recognition of the African countries as equal partners with “shared interests and responsibilities”. In this sense, the pursuit of reform beginning of the CFA franc constitutes a significative example of overcoming neo-colonial structures. Moreover, according to Macron’s declarations, France will stop influencing the allocation of transnational contracts in favour of French companies, leaving open economic competition to other actors. Secondly, France will shift from the aid logic to solidarity investments. Specifically, Paris’ investments will focus on health, sports, education and entrepreneurship. Indeed, between 2019 and 2022 Paris invested more than 3 milliards euros in the Choose Africa initiative to sustain SSA entrepreneurs and will renovate this commitment through MEET Africa 2. 

    5.0 Critical comment 

    Strategic speeches are always arduous to comment on. This is especially true for France which has often demonstrated a certain degree of reluctance regarding admitting its own limits and declining relative power. Nevertheless, at least rhetorically, this speech seems to represent a further development towards greater pragmatism and willingness to adapt Paris’s approach to an ever-changing international environment. 

    However, despite the declared humility, a certain degree of arrogance and normativity emerges at least on two occasions.

    5.1 “Notre intérêt, c’est d’abord la démocratie” 

    While talking about France’s interests, Macron spoke about the primary relevance of democracy even before the economic concerns. Nevertheless, when compared to Paris practice, this declaration is inconsistent. In the last years, France applied double standards. On the one hand, it has fiercely condemned the military coups in Guinea, Burkina Faso and especially Mali. On the other hand, it continued to support non democratic regimes when favourable to the Metropolis such as in the case of the Bongo “dynasty” in Gabon, Paul Biya in Cameroon and Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Congo-Brazaville. Even more blatant context is Chad, where even after the 2021 “institutional coup” by Mahamat Deby, l’Élysée has maintained highly fruitful relationships with the country. 

    Despite the repeated declarations of renewal, in Gabon and Chad, the balances seem to remain unchanged for decades.

    5.2 French hubris resurfaces: Opération Barkhane

    Stimulated by a question from Simon Le Baron, the president delved more into the Barkhane question by stating: 

    “I am honoured that in 2013 we played a role that no other non-African country has ever played. No other! That is our pride, which is why I will always be angry and indignant before the leaders, the journalists, and the public opinion attacking France on this subject, because our children died in Africa to fight terrorism there.”

    This remark is slightly problematic. First saying that french soldiers died in Africa to fight terrorism is a staunch generalisation that neglects the particularities of the Sahelian stripe in the current crisis. Furthermore, while it is true that several young French soldiers lost their lives in the Sahel, Barkhane’s assessment cannot be done by sentimentally measuring the Paris’ blood price. This attitude does not allow to comprehend the unsuccess causes and improvement points. While it is true that french military presence was used as a scapegoat from the military juntas and kremlin sponsored narratives, the internal causes of Barkhane’s failure must be considered. Among others, Paris’s neo-colonial attitudes, communicative shortcomings and overly militaristic approach are the principal ones. 

    5.3 France’s uranium dependency 

    Furthermore, a key element that the presidency only grazed on is France’s foreign uranium dependency. In fact, the production of nuclear energy is fundamental both from Paris internal market and electricity exports. Specifically, more than 70 percent of the electricity produced in France is produced by nuclear fission. While nuclear facilities have often been celebrated as an invaluable strength, they are actually a double-edged sword. 

    Due to the highly uneven distribution of Uranium, few countries control most of the reserves and production. France stopped domestic uranium mining in 2000, thus now is totally dependent on production in foreign countries. In particular, In 2020, Niger represented Paris’ first partner, accounting for approximately 35 percent of the imports. In light of this, french security cooperation in the Sahel partially loses the romantic aura Macron depicted. 

    Not tackling the energy issue in the discourse could be an unfortunate distraction or an attempt to voluntarily avoid a thorny issue. Also considering the recent findings about the pollution of Orano’s activities nearby Arlit (Niger), the second hypothesis becomes more likely. 

    Satellite image of Niger's Uraniums Mines
    Satellite image of Niger’s Uraniums Mines

    6.0 Conclusion 

    France’s new approach to the continent is based upon two main pillars. Firstly, as already announced in Toulon last November, Paris will implement a “Copernican revolution” of its OPEX. The principal idea is to deploy lighter missions to face the specific needs of the host country while engaging more decisively in the narrative battle. Secondly, l’Élysée suggests renewed economic relationships based upon win-win cooperation (co-industrialisation) and solidarity investments in health, sports, culture and entrepreneurship.  

    Macron’s speech effectively constitutes a discrete change in France’s stance, especially in the OPEX domain. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen to what extent these hopeful words will turn into deeds. 

    To deepen the discussion about the Africa-France partnership, we suggest watching:

    Intelligence Cut-Off Date:  15th March, 2022

    Samuele Minelli Zuffa
    Samuele Minelli Zuffa
    Samuele is an Italian international security and intelligence analyst. His main area of interest is Sub-Saharan Africa, where he focuses on climate-conflict nexus, asymmetric warfare untraditional security threats. He complements traditional research methods with Satellite Imagery and GIS investigation.

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