The French Legacy in Africa


French Marriage to Africa:

At the end of WWII, France began a process of decolonization as nationalist movements surged in its African colonies. In the 1960s, France formally gave independence, and in doing so, entered into special agreements with their new authoritarian leaders, and effectively maintained relations from 1958 to 1995. The “curious” relationship is attributed to Charles de Gaulle’s determination to continue close ties with Africa.

France’s historic relationship with Africa can be attributed to a range of motivations:

  • Political: French military presence was intended to back former colonial allies in Africa facing civil unrest and protect against communist expansion in the Cold War environment. Historically, French allies accepted the powerful presence as part of the strategy against Soviet Russia.
  • Economic: African countries within the French sphere of influence are rich in materials like oil and minerals. Uranium from Niger is responsible for about 25% of France’s electricity production, and of the 16 African oil-exporting countries, over half are considered part of France’s Francafrique umbrella. This special relationship means that French multinational companies had particular strength in sectors like service, logistics, among others, including the secured access to strategic raw materials.
  • Diplomatic: Maintaining strong relations with African states helps to sustain France’s global image and its position as a major international power. The network of African ally countries provides a source of support for the French vote in the United Nations (UN), as well as other international negotiations on global issues of interest.

The urgency of protection waned at the conclusion of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Without the looming threat of communism, democracy took hold, and the French had less influence on local politics.

Post Cold War Politics:

Since the 1990s, French policy towards Africa has been evolving, moving toward a direction of less responsibility and physical presence. Under Jaques Chirac’s presidency (1995-2007), peacekeeping operations in Africa were delegated to organizations like the African Union and the UN while the French army began training African peacekeepers. However, after a notable failure of mediation in Cote d’Ivoire, the momentum of reform came to a halt.

President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) worked through the United Nations, European Union, and regional organizations to both expand economic ties, maintain influence in security, and reduce military presence. Again, the enactment of reform was slow.

In the 2000s, the influence of other global powers began to emerge. China, India, Brazil, and Turkey came to the continent for economic opportunity, including the access to abundant raw materials. Instead of France, China is now Africa’s largest trading partner with almost $200 billion in transactions, attributing to Africa’s GDP growth of around 5.5% a year for the past decade.

In 2012, President Francois Hollande and his administration planned to reinvigorate reform as the crisis in Mali escalated.

  • Governance and Politics: France is taking careful diplomatic steps in approaching the issue of governance. As the largest donor of financial and development aid to African countries, France wants to uphold that certain values (like democracy and human rights) while respecting the right of African states to make their own decisions and self-govern. It rewards democratically elected governments with larger aid flows and strong public support rather than strictly punishing those that do not.
  • Security Policy: Stability in Africa has again become a priority of further French involvement due to its geographical proximity, the depth of the human links with African countries, and the importance of economic and energy ties.
  • Economic Partnerships: Since the global recession and the Euro Crisis, French budget is under pressure, and aid expenditure fell by 4.1% in 2011. President Hollande’s administration has planned to create institutions to facilitate an increase in the proportion of government aid channeled through NGOs. In the wake of competition from incoming powers (China, etc), the effect on France’s interests varies across sectors.

Since the 1960s, France has been involved in 30 interventions in Africa. France is not just a former colonial power, but also a major trading partner, development ally, and security interventionist. Historically, this policy has been a win/win situation only boosting the French position and maintaining stability in the Sub-Sahara, and many still support a France active in Africa. However, concerns over the burden of responsibility as well as the push for reform leave French policy in Africa in an ongoing struggle between the ties to continuity and the desire for change.

By: Samantha Simmons, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern