Counterterrorism or Neo-Colonialism? The French Army in Africa

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 5

French soldiers arrest an alleged member of Seleka, who was denounced by residents of Combattant neighborhood near Bangui's airport, on December 9, 2013 (Source Getty Images)

France has sent troops in the past year to two former African colonies, Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR). In Mali, the concern was an Islamist terrorist assault on the government, while in the Central African Republic there were fears that religious clashes between the country’s Muslim and Christian populations could descend into genocide. France will maintain a presence in both nations for the foreseeable future, but French interventions in Africa date back over five decades. The major difference between then and now is that France is now working in cooperation with African Union troops and has received U.S. air support in Mali’s Operation Serval.  

The Past as Prologue 

At its height, France’s African empire included most of the Sahara and Sahel region, large parts of West Africa (including several important ports), the Island of Madagascar and the strategic port of Djibouti at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. 

The conclusion of World War II was the beginning of the end for most European colonial empires, as the conflict lethally weakened both the governments’ political fortitude and their military capacities to withstand rising post-war Third World nationalist independence movements, many supported by the Communist bloc as “wars of liberation.” 

The watershed year for African independence was 1960, when 17 sub-Saharan nations, including 14 former French colonies, gained independence. However, Algeria, with its status as a department of France, had to endure a brutal guerrilla war against its French occupiers before finally gaining independence in July 1962. The last French colony in Africa, Djibouti, only gained independence in June 1877. 

France – Still Influential in African Ex-Colonies 

Despite the independence of its former African colonies, France still wields a high degree of influence in sub-Saharan Africa. Economic considerations remain a major driver of French foreign policy in Africa. Over the past decade, France’s share of African trade plummeted from 10 to 4.7 percent, while China’s African market share soared to over 16 percent in 2011. [1] Reviving France’s African trade is a key foreign policy element of the French government. 

During African crises, France remains a prime source of diplomatic, financial and military support for African francophone nations. From 1960 to 2005, France launched 46 military operations in its former African colonies. [2] French military interventionism in its former African colonies has been a relatively consistent policy for 54 years and is supported by an extensive network of bilateral Franco-African defense and military assistance treaties. French military protection was extended to the francophone former Belgian colonies of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Rwanda and Burundi in the mid-1970s. While many of the operations were portrayed as missions to protect French citizens or support legitimate governments against rebellions, Paris often sent military assistance contingent on a “legitimate” African leader’s willingness to support French interests. 

The 1994 Genocide in Rwanda – A Turning Point 

In 1993, Rwandan rebels rose against the government and France sent 600 troops in Operation Noroît to protect foreigners, though these troops were withdrawn by the end of the year. On April 8, 1994, in view of the deteriorating situation, France launched Operation Amaryllis in order to protect the evacuation of 1,500 residents, primarily Westerners. France’s subsequent Operation Turquoise saved an estimated 10,000 to 17,000 lives, but it also helped Rwandans suspected of genocide flee the country, resulting in harsh media criticism and parliamentary inquiries, especially as France did not use its U.N. Security Council position to stop the killings while it was still possible. [3] The French embassy in London stated that “France acted not only in order to prevent the tragedy, but also to mobilize the international community to come to the aid of the genocide victims.” [4] The allegations of inaction contributing to the Rwandan slaughter increased French determination not to allow similar events in former French and Belgian colonies in the future. 

French Peacekeeping Operations 

Roughly 12,000 French troops are currently engaged in 15 United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world, sanctioned by the Security Council. [5] According to the French Ministry of Defense, nearly half of these are deployed in Africa in both military and advisory capacities, increasingly on short-term emergency deployments in order to stabilize regions under France’s traditional influence. [6] 

France’s African Military Presence Becomes Permanent 

There are three main French military bases in Africa. Djibouti is the largest, with smaller forces at Dakar in Senegal and Libreville in Gabon. Their purpose is to promote regional security, though the base in Djibouti on the Red Sea allows France to exercise a measure of military influence in the Middle East as well. According to the French Ministry of Defense, the missions of the “prepositioned forces” are assisting armed forces of the African Union (AU); fulfilling the commitments of France to host countries, European and UN frameworks, including peacekeeping; crisis prevention, support of free trade and the protection and possible evacuation of French nationals. [7] 

France is in Djibouti under a 1977 bilateral defense protocol covering “Les forces françaises stationnées à Djibouti” (FFDj). The French Ministry of Defense numbers FFDj forces at about 1,900 soldiers, including 1,400 permanently based prepositioned troops, with the FFDj “numerically the most important French contingent in Africa.” [8] 

The “Éléments français au Sénégal” (EFS) deploys about 450 soldiers, mostly in Dakar; in 2014, the EFS is slated to run at least 120 training exercises and train about 5,000 African military personnel from neighboring Sahel countries, including Niger, Mali and Mauritania, along with providing assistance to French troops in Mali. [9] 

France has deployed armed forces in Gabon since independence under defense agreements signed in August 1960. “Les forces françaises au Gabon” (FFG) currently number about 900 soldiers, including 450 permanently based in Gabon, one of three French reservoirs of prepositioned forces in Africa, with the FFG on alert to support operations in Western and Central Africa. [10] 

The ongoing Operation Épervier (“Sparrowhawk”) deployment of French troops in Chad began in February 1986 at the request of the Hissène Habré government to contain a Libyan invasion that was threatening the Chadian capital of N’djamena. The 950 French troops still stationed there contribute to both Chad’s stability and that of the surrounding region. [11] 

Force Licorne, the deployment of 450 French troops in Côte d’Ivoire, dates back to September 2002, when they were dispatched to protect French nationals after an attempted coup. [12] 

Mali 2013 – Operation Serval (“Wildcat”) 

In 2013, France undertook two interventions, one in Mali and another in the CAR. On January 11 2013, Malian authorities requested French assistance in halting armed terrorist groups believed to be advancing towards the capital Bamako. Utilizing its prepositioned forces, France launched a major air and land intervention a few hours later in support of the Malian armed forces. West African and Chadian troops backed by a pro-Bamako Tuareg militia joined them in the second half of January. Eight NATO air forces plus Sweden and the UAE provided non-combat assistance with air transport, aerial refueling and reconnaissance. Within six weeks, French-led forces recaptured all of the towns in northern Mali that had been seized by the Islamists in 2012. [13] French forces now work alongside the United Nations’ peacekeeping Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali, (MINUSMA), established by UN Security Council Resolution 2100 to stabilize Mali after the 2012 Tuareg rebellion and Islamist occupation. 

About 2,500 French soldiers with armor and attack helicopters are currently serving in Operation Serval in Mali alongside four battalions of AU troops, though further reductions of the size of the French force are underway. [14] 

Central African Republic – Operation Sangaris 

France has deployed forces to the CAR seven times in just over 30 years, including on three occasions in 1996. 

In March 2013, Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia seized power, unseating elected president François Bozize and became the second Muslim leader of the predominantly Christian oil-rich country (former CAR president Jean-Bédel Bokassa briefly converted to Islam for three months in 1976 at the urging of Libyan leader Mu’ammar Qaddafi). Some Muslim guerrillas ignored Djotodia’s order to disband and went on a rampage, prompting Christians to form anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) vigilante groups in response. 

Accordingly, on December 5, 2013, French President François Hollande announced his decision to reinforce French troops in the CAR to prevent a humanitarian disaster, telling reporters: “The Security Council has adopted a resolution, unanimously, which mandates an African force to provide security, to restore stability in the CAR and to protect the population. France will support this operation… Already, 600 French soldiers are on the spot. This number will double in the next few days, if not hours.” [15] 

But France is now moving beyond unilateral intervention. On December 6-7, 2013, France hosted the Elysée Summit for Peace and Security in Africa, with 53 African delegations and France participating, along with UN, AU, EU, IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank representatives. Participants reiterated their commitment to collective security in Africa and to encouraging peace and promoting human rights. Vice Admiral Marin Gillier, director of the Security and Defense Cooperation Directorate of the Ministère des affaires étrangères (MAE) stated in the wake of the summit’s Final Declaration that Directorate priorities are set according to three criteria set by the Elysée, the MAE and the Ministries of Defense and the Interior. The first priority is geographical, centering on the Sahara-Sahel region. The second is to oppose cross-border trafficking in drugs, human beings and armaments. The third and final priority is to preserve the influence of France.  Far from constricting French behavior, the Final Declaration is being interpreted in Paris as a mandate to expand French African operations, including deploying a maritime safety system in the Gulf of Guinea. [16] 

On January 10, Djotodia resigned under intense international pressure after failing to end the violence. He was succeeded by former Bangui mayor Catherine Samba Panza as interim president. Panza immediately urged Christian and Muslim militias to cease fighting. 


For decades, France viewed much of post-colonial Africa as pré carré, an exclusive sphere of influence. The results of its military footprint in Africa have been mixed. A year after Operation Serval began, Mali’s government has reasserted itself through nationwide polls that saw former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta elected president and parliament reopened. Challenges for Mali remain a peaceful settlement with its Tuareg separatists, quashing the remnants of its Islamist insurgency and improving the dire state of the economy. 

The picture is cloudier in the CAR. The bloodshed continues, albeit at a reduced rate, and the interim political structure is at best fragile. A number of analysts have described the CAR as a failed state in permanent crisis. Furthermore, the country is surrounded by other poverty wracked, unstable states, including Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and Cameroon.  

On February 25, the National Assembly approved extending France’s 2,000-strong CAR deployment beyond April by a vote of 428 for and 14 against. The same day, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warned his compatriots: “Our action in the CAR is not finished but our efforts have begun to bear fruit,” adding that “difficulties are considerable.” [17] 

France is now encountering increased economic competition for African resource riches from new players in Africa, including China, India, Canada, the United States, Israel, Iran, Brazil, the Gulf States, Turkey, South Africa and Malaysia. Such competition will only intensify in the short and long term. Paris, in the meantime, is prepared to protect its economic assets, ordering Special Forces troops to protect its uranium facilities in Niger. 

Multilateral deployments seem to be the way of the future, with France coordinating its activities with such allies as the EU and the United States. For the moment, however, France’s prepositioned troops are likely to be the advance units for the foreseeable future of any peacekeeping forces sent into France’s former African colonies. 

Dr. John C. K. Daly is a Eurasian foreign affairs and defense policy expert for The Jamestown Foundation and a non-resident fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington DC. 


1. Hubert Védrine, Lionel Zinsou,Tidjane Thiam, Jean-Michel Severino, Hakim El Karoui: “15 propositions pour une nouvelle dynamique économique entre l’Afrique et la France,” Rapport au Ministre de l’Économie et des Finances, December 2013,

2. Christopher Griffin, “French Military Interventions in Africa: Realism vs. Ideology in French Defense Policy and Grand Strategy,” Paper prepared for the International Studies Association 2007 Annual Convention, February 28-March 3, 2007, Chicago, IL.,

3. “Chronologie des événements [1959-1996],” Mission d’information sur le Rwanda, Assemblée nationale, Paris, December 1998, p. 638.

4. Emmanuel Viret, “The French Betrayal of Rwanda” [review], African Studies Review 52(3), December 2009, pp. 188-190.

5. United Nations, “Les opérations de maintien de la paix: Les opérations en cours,”

6. Raphaël Rossignol, “Les intérêts français en Afrique,” Institut Recherche Stratégique de l’École Militaire, Ministère de la Défense, February 13, 2013,

7. “Les Éléments français au Sénégal,” Ministère de la Défense, November, 15, 2013,

8. “Les forces françaises stationnées à Djibouti,” Ministère de la Défense, August 23, 2012,

9. “Sénégal: bilan 2013 des éléments français au Sénégal (EFS),” Ministère de la Défense, February 21, 2014,

10. “Les forces françaises au Gabon,” Ministère de la Défense, August 23, 2012,

11. “Les éléments français au Tchad (EFT),” Ministère de la Défense, February 24, 2014,

12. “Les forces françaises en Côte d’Ivoire,” Ministère de la Défense, January 2, 2014,

13. “Présentation de l’opération,” Ministère de la Défense, October 25, 2013,

14. “Mali: Présentation de l’opération,” Ministère de la Défense, October 25, 2013,

15. “Operation Sangaris,” Ministère de la Défense, December 10, 2013,

16. “La déclaration finale du Sommet de l’Elysée pour la Paix et la Sécurité en Afrique,” December 7 2013, Présidence de la République française – Élysé; Sophie Vienot, “Un amiral au Quai d’Orsay,” Cols Bleus – le magazine de la Marine Nationale, February 26, 2014.

17. “RCA: l’opération Sangaris prolongée," Journal du Mali, February 27, 2014,