France Seeks Influence Reboot in Africa Amid Sahelian Military Withdrawal
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 11
On March 4, during his trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), French president Emmanuel Macron shared his vision for France, with Paris remaining deeply engaged in Africa. He portrayed France as the European partner which had the greatest amount in common with African countries in terms of values and provides the most support for mutually beneficial security and trade relationships (Euractiv, March 6). Macron’s ongoing attempt to facilitate France’s re-emergence as a fully-fledged regional security actor in Africa is not occurring rapidly enough to compensate for the country’s decreasing status in its traditional spheres of economic and cultural influence in Africa, however. Macron’s words were nevertheless consistent with what he has said since he was first elected in 2017. Macron has been eager to re-establish French influence in Africa, despite myriad issues in the last six years: armed conflicts have made the Francophone Sahel region a center of insurgency, French troops have withdrawn from Mali, with even the Algerian government indicating that English will be taught in the country’s schools instead of French (Al Mayadeen, October 7, 2022; La Croix, April 3).
France’s Waning Security Position
In the 1990s, French policy towards Africa came under heavy criticism, and the subsequent souring of French-African relations resulted in a decrease in French diplomatic representation on the continent (Le Monde, March 6). Paris’s most significant stumbling block was its failure to act during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, when France was accused of failing to prevent the actions of its ally, the government of then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, when it began preparations for what would occur (Le Figaro, May 27, 2021). France’s emphasis on the fight against terrorism in the Sahel at the expense of its economic strategy in the past decade has likewise further eroded ties between France and the people of Africa (France 24, May 24, 2022).
Despite a massive, sustained military effort with more than 5,000 troops deployed in countries such as Niger and Chad, France has not been able to successfully counter the threat from jihadists, whose attacks on local communities and security forces continue in the Sahel (Le Point, January 27). France’s waning influence allowed African states to reorient their economic and security partnerships as the continent has once again become a geopolitical battleground. Now Chinese, Russian, and Turkish influence are growing on the continent and presenting alternatives to that of France (AfricaNews, March 15).
In Mali, France’s inability to combat the insurgency in the north of the country was a subtext to the May 2021 coup d’état that catapulted Colonel Assimi Goïta to power (North Africa Post, November 18, 2022). Operation Barkhane, the French military counter-terrorism campaign that began in 2013, became mired in an increasingly impotent fight against the al-Qaeda affiliate, Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS)—all while political instability engulfed Bamako (France Bleu, November 9, 2022). Since the coup, Goïta has shunned Paris and gravitated toward Moscow, whose Wagner mercenaries were already active in another former French colony, the Central African Republic (CAR) (Le Monde, February 4).
The Return of French Soft Power
Currently, Paris is trying to woo African nations to its side by implementing a soft power policy through strengthening ties with civil society and appealing to young people. In March, during a four-country trip to Central Africa, Macron called for a “mutual and responsible relationship” with African nations, including on climate issues (France 24, March 1). Having prompted a shift towards a lower-profile, more collaborative military approach amid the French withdrawal from Mali, Macron is also trying to foster cultural connections with French-speaking Africa by improving access to visas for Africans to pursue post-graduate study in France (Dzair Daily, February 28).
In July 2022, Macron launched a charm offensive to reboot France’s relationship with Africa, touring Cameroon, Benin, and Guinea-Bissau on his first trip to the continent since winning re-election in April 2022 (Euronews, 26 July, 2022). He also promised to reduce France’s military presence across Africa (L’independant, February 27). Macron further claimed France would circumvent “anachronistic” power struggles in Africa, declaring that African states ought to be treated as equal partners in the area of military and economic cooperation (Le Point, February 27).
Nevertheless, African countries themselves seem to prefer to follow a multi-vector foreign policy. For instance, African states’ attitudes toward China and Russia are shifting as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a UN General Assembly vote in March 2022, 38 African states condemned Moscow’s war on Ukraine, while 16 states abstained (Africa Renewal, April 21, 2022). Despite this, farmers’ associations from 11 Central African states asserted that disruptions in food supplies caused by the war in Ukraine have led to skyrocketing food prices, reducing purchasing power for many Africans (North Africa Post, September 15, 2022). Many African states, therefore, have adopted a “neutral” position on Moscow’s war and might prefer a “peace deal” that, at present, would secure Russian territorial gains in Ukraine and the flow of food to Africa (Al-Jazeera, February 26).
France currently has neither the tools to replace China, Russia, or Turkey nor the intention to be the dominant power in Africa. However, Turkey’s economic challenges and Russia’s prolonged war against Ukraine could create an opening for France to take a more assertive role in Africa, if they are able to induce African states to distance themselves from other powers (Daily Sabah, April 11). As Paris is realizing in Africa, the fight against jihadists, which has been so crucial to its foreign policy on the continent, can only be won by binding military prowess with local governance initiatives, tackling corruption, and improving the lives of civilians. France will not be able to remain influential in Africa with an over-emphasis in counter-insurgency as it has in the past—instead, a more comprehensive strategy will be needed.