Africa, World

France’s changing relationship with Africa: Backyard, backstop or backdoor?

France’s changing relationship with Africa: Backyard, backstop or backdoor?

Historically, there have been four drivers behind France’s Africa policy: security, people, business and aid, and the importance of an international ‘voice’. These still remain, to an extent. But French policy on Africa has been on a trajectory of change since the mid-1990s, reflecting generational changes and institutional imperatives. By GREG MILLS.

This past month, Paris was bedecked with Malian flags flying side-by-side with the Tricolour. Remarkably it was the first state visit by a Malian president since the African country’s independence from France 56 years ago.

Malian flags with the Tricolour on The Avenue des Champs-Élysées. (Greg Mills)

Not that Mali’s leaders are unfamiliar with the French capital. To the contrary. A home away from home, a place of education, a preferred trading partner, a security stop-gap – France is all of these things, so much so that the area around the Line 9 Metro stop of Porte de Montreuil, says one French official, is like “little Bamako”.

The hosting of a trade and investment summit to parallel Malian President IBK’s (as Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is widely known) visit would suggest that the concept of Françafrique, describing an inseparable relationship between France and Africa, is alive and well, where security, personal and economic interests are closely entwined.

Equally the involvement of the French military in Operation Serval, launched in Mali in January 2013 to prevent a Touareg-led takeover in Bamako and restore the democracy upended in a January 2012 coup, would seem to hark back to an earlier era of involvement in a Française pré carré (backyard) of the 25 French-speaking former African colonies.

But much has changed.

Yves Gounin, a senior civil servant at the Conseil d’Etat, and a former adviser to Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, likens this shift to a struggle “between traditionalists and modernisers, and the modernisers have won”.

Historically, there have been four drivers behind France’s Africa policy: security, people, business and aid, and the importance of an international ‘voice’.

These still remain, to an extent.

Since the independence of African states, France has intervened militarily in the continent more than 30 times. Today military assistance is spread across five bases: Dakar, Libreville, Djibouti, La Reunion (technically part of France), and Abidjan, totalling 5,350 personnel.

In addition, there is French participation in so-called regional operations, in Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso, in the Central African Republic, and in European Union-supported missions in the Horn of Africa, Somalia, and, again, Mali. Along with small contingents in Liberia, the United Nations’ Monusco Congo mission, and the Gulf of Guinea, the total French military commitment numbers around 10,000.

There are also 100,000 French citizens in Africa; and perhaps as many as 4-million sub-Saharan Africans in France, including 110,000 students. As one French official observed: “We are part of Africa, and Africa is part of us.”

There are two dimensions to the economic relationship.

The 150 French companies which are members of the CIAN, the French Council for Investment in Africa, turn over €60-billion annually, and directly employ 400,000 in Africa including 5,000 expatriates. Two-way trade was worth €54-billion in 2013, split equally between imports and exports.

Then there is the aid aspect, both through the Agence Française de Développement, which provides 40% (some €8-billion) of its annual budget to Africa. It is not alone, with funding also from the Banque publique d’investissement for small and medium-sized businesses.

In the past there was a logic to all this beyond economics.

Close ties with Africa were said to offer France a unique voice in international affairs. Former foreign minister Jacques Godfrain summed up this grandeur: “A little country [France], with a small amount of strength, we can move a planet because [of our] … relations with 15 or 20 African countries.” This was linked to the role played by Africa in World War II, a belief that metropolitan France might not have survived without Africa’s commitment of blood and treasure to La France Libre, the Gaullist Free French movement established first in Brazzaville at the end of 1940.

An old WWII poster.

But as Gounin suggests, French policy on Africa has been on a trajectory of change since the mid-1990s, reflecting generational changes and institutional imperatives. “There had been a constant debate in France between those who advocated a special relationship with Africa, and those that wanted to normalise relations in line with the rest of the world,” he says. “After all,” he adds, “France’s colonial relationship with Africa was very short in the overall life of a nation, just 50 years until 1960.”

A key symbolic moment was the death of Côte d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny at the end of 1993. “The dinosaurs of African independence were by then in and around the grave,” notes Gounin. Greater transparency meant, too, that old sous la table ways of doing things discretely had to change. Françafrique had been a tangled web of dependency, shady financial-political networks (including campaign financing) and military connivance.

Then, in 1997 then prime minister Lionel Jospin dissolved the ministry of cooperation, folding it into the foreign ministry, reducing the wiggle room for personal dealings and the prospects of policy schizophrenia. Africa policy was described by Jospin in terms of “Ni-Ni”, or “neither interference nor indifference”. One senior policy planner in the foreign ministry, the Quai d’Orsay, summed this departure up as “letting the chips fall where they may”.

Earlier, under the legendary ‘Mr Africa’ Jacques Foccart and, later, the president’s son Jean-Christophe Mitterrand (nicknamed less affectionately ‘Papamadit’, literally ‘Daddy told me’), Africa policy was largely the preserve of the Élysée. Today the Africa section at the presidential palace numbers just two.

This shift has primarily, however, reflected changes in Africa.

The 1994 Rwanda genocide led to introspection on French policy and traditional relationships, as did the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko three years later. Such changes have been accelerated by a change of leadership generations, and the advent of new players in Africa, notably China, but also India and Turkey among others. French experts calculate that China is responsible for at least one-third of Africa’s recent economic growth. Mobile communications have been another catalyst for this change, opening the continent to the world, and vice versa, much wider than the former colonial powers.

While the three Maghreb countries – Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria – make up just over half of the French export market, the pattern of trade with Africa has shifted. Rather than its traditional West African Francophonie clients, today South Africa is the most important partner in sub-Saharan Africa (€1.8-billion in French exports; €550-million in imports in 2013). Nigeria, another Angolophone country, ranked second.

Aid has also become delinked. For example today France gives a big chunk of its budget to Ethiopia, even though, as Jean-Christophe Belliard, the director of Africa and the Indian Ocean at the foreign ministry, put it, “there is no major French company there”.

While the numbers and extent of France’s military engagement in Africa would suggest otherwise, officials are at pains to explain a different methodology to this engagement.

Belliard argues: “The success of our operation in Mali was not because we did it, but because we consulted widely beforehand. The leadership of the peace process was in Algeria, not in France, it was all about supporting Africans to do it themselves.” He says the same is true for the mission in the Central African Republic, “where we acted together with Africans”.

Who would have thought that the French military would be doing joint patrols with Rwanda on the streets of Bangui?” The same consultative approach has also worked, he says, in Boko Haram, where France is among those helping with intelligence provision along with arms and ammunition. “France is very much an African Unionist,” he emphasises. This position is driven by practical and political considerations. “An African validation prevents a veto by China and Russia. Our idea is not to do military operations, but to get others to do it,” he says.

Equally, absent the al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine terrorism element which had made an alliance with Touareg groups a practical necessity, it is unlikely that France would have intervened in Mali. After all, as one Quai d’Orsay policy specialist notes: “The correct way to deal with perennial Touareg rebellions is negotiations, not force, and it’s none of our business.”

While the military has gained particular institutional prestige as a result of recent African successes, the default policy position is to backstop Africa, not lead.

French businesses have also shifted to a less parochial and more pan-African perspective.

They are bullish about their continental prospects. “We believe in Africa,” says Etienne Giros, the president of CIAN and formerly a director at the infrastructure and services giant Bolloré. While he acknowledges problems of African governance, the weakness of infrastructure and skills shortages among a youthful African population, he says the continent’s fundamental commercial opportunity is that there are “more mouths to feed and houses to be built”. This is especially true, he notes, “of the urban areas, where populations will increase four-fold over the next generation as Africa’s overall population doubles”. There are, he says, “good reasons for optimism”.

France still has a particular niche among those African states which share French law and language, and the CFA franc. Yet France is positioning itself as a backdoor to business across all of Africa, not just among its former colonies.

Of course the traditionalists, to use Gounin’s terminology, have railed, preferring the old ways of doing things. But the world has moved on, a long way from the situation described by then minister of the interior Francois Mitterrand in 1957: “Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century.”

We know that was an exaggeration. Nearly 60 years later France’s policy mandarins would argue instead that with Africa, France has a different, more positive future. DM

Dr Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, and has been visiting France.

Photo: French President Francois Hollande (L) welcomes Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita as he arrives for a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, 21 October 2015. EPA/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON.


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