You’re less likely to see the French tricolore in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, than the Russian red, white and blue | Assane Ouedraogo/EFE via EPA
BY LAURA KAYALI AND CLEA CAULCUTT
PARIS — The French flag was lowered for thelast time in the Bila Zagré military camp in Burkina Faso on Sunday, marking the end of 13 years of a presence by French armed forces in the West African country.
France’s withdrawal from Burkina Faso comes at a time when you’re less likely to see the French tricolore in the capital Ouagadougou than the Russian red, white and blue, marking a rapid and stunning loss of influence for the former colonial power.
Around 400 French troops had been posted in Burkina Faso since 2010, as part of Paris’ efforts to stop hostage-takings and later to curb the expansion of terrorist groups in the broader Sahel region. In January, the French were given one month to leave the country — a decision that followed a period of growing instability in the country, including two coups d’état in 2022.
The withdrawal from Burkina Faso is the third setback for French President Emmanuel Macron, who promised a new approach to Africa when he came to power in 2017, one based on a “partnership of equals.”
In recent months, France has also had to leave Mali and Central African Republic, raising fears of a domino effect across the continent as Macron winds down his country’s decade-long Barkhane operation to fight against jihadists in the Sahel.
“It’s a real test for France,” said Seidik Abba, a writer from Niger and an Africa security studies specialist at the University of Valenciennes in France. “If it doesn’t want to see a contagion [across Africa], it has to change its approach.”
“In Burkina Faso, the situation is shaky,” Abba added. “And now in Chad and Niger, people want to see a new type of partnership with France.”
There are still about 6,000 French boots on the ground on the African continent, including 1,000 in Niger and 900 in the Ivory Coast,according to local reports.
The reasons for France’s waning influence in the Sahel region are multi-faceted, rooted in its colonial history and accelerated by local politics, but its troubles are also a consequence of Russia’s ambitions to expand its foothold on the continent, especially since the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The Elysée palace has taken note, however, and Macron is headed to Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Gabon next week, on the heels of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s tourof Mali, Mauritania and Sudan in January.
As French troops are systematically ushered out, they are in some cases being replaced by mercenaries from Russia’s paramilitary organization Wagner Group — which is led by Vladimir Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin. In Burkina Faso, the country’s military leaders deny they have sealed a deal with the Wagner Group, but Russian mercenaries have been sighted in the country.
Backing up the Wagner boots on the ground, Russia is also waging sophisticated and coordinated information warfare, grossly misrepresenting France, which has so far struggled to effectively strike back.
French President Emmanuel Macron at the New Africa-France 2021 Summit in Montpellier | Guillaume Horcajuelo/EFE via EPA
“We have not built enough soft power,” conceded a French government official speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. “Our ambassadors must be more offensive when it comes to putting out counternarratives, instead of communicating only within institutional frameworks.”
In his defense review speech in November, Macron argued that the army should also focus on influence operations, in the face of disinformation campaigns and attempts to manipulate civilians — in particular in Africa.
“We will not be the enduring spectators of this evolution,” he said. “We must detect it without delay, and stop it — but using democratic [tools].”
French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu visited Ivory Coast earlier this week for the second time in less than a year to discuss the conditions of France’s military presence in the region. As of press time, Lecornu was in Senegal.
And in an effort to fight back in the virtual sphere of diplomacy, France’s foreign affairs ministry has created a new unit to spot early signs of disinformation campaigns and provide French officials across the world with “a back office” to help respond to fake news operations, according to a French diplomat with knowledge of the operations.
In recent years, Russia has deployed waves of crude falsified accusations against France in African countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso and Central African Republic. But France’s attempts to set the record straight have often faltered.
There is an “accepted asymmetry between liberal democracies and authoritarian states” in how they can fight online, argues Maxime Audinet, research fellow at the French Ministry of Armed Forces’ Institute for Strategic Research.
A Russian armoured personnel carrier in Bangui, Central African Republic, in 2020 | Camille Laffont/AFP via Getty Images
“A democracy cannot resort to disinformation without a boomerang effect,” Audinet added. In 2020, French attempts to counter Russian online disinformation campaigns in the Central African Republic and Mali with fake accounts backfired, when Facebook disclosed the participation of individuals connected to the French armed forces.
Research by Mark Duerksen, from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the U.S. Department of Defense, shows that narratives pushed by Russian interests include depictions of Moscow as a liberating, anti-colonial force against Western imperialism. France, in contrast, is presented as collaborating with Islamist jihadists, stealing natural resources and is portrayed in videos as snakes, zombies and rats.
Ahead of France’s military withdrawal from its three former colonies, discourse against Paris and Macron was spread via official Kremlin-backed outlets such as RT and Sputnik, which have upped their efforts in Africa after being banned in the EU. In parallel, over the past year, Radio France Internationale (RFI) was banned in both Mali and Burkina Faso, and France 24 was suspended in Mali.
Anti-French sentiment is also amplified by an informal network of troll farms, movie productions, fake social media accounts, pro-Russian African online influencers and partnerships with local media that can be linked to what experts and researchers call the “Prigozhin galaxy,” after the founder of the Wagner Group.
“[The Russians] are happy if anti-French narratives are taken up by young men in Ouagadougou or Bamako,” Duerksen said, “but their [main] goal is shutting down public debate and closing the information space.”
Russia’s disinformation machine would not have been so effective in Africa had France’s record on the continent been better in the past decades, some French experts and lawmakers say. Former French colonies Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad retained links to France for a long time but rank as some of the poorest countries in the world. And even as French troops have fought jihadists in the Sahel since 2013, security in the region has steadily worsened.
“Russian propaganda takes advantage of a situation but does not create it. It would not have any hold if we had not accumulated mistakes,” said Arnaud Le Gall, a lawmaker from the left-wing opposition party France Unbowed, who chairs the National Assembly’s France-Burkina Faso friendship group.
France is now attempting a sea change in its relations with African nations. When Macron brought the Barkhane operation to an end last year, the decision was taken to engage in more supportive roles in Africa.
“We have to learn to ‘work with’ [African armed forces], not ‘instead of’ them,” said one French government official with reference to successful joint French and Niger units working together. But these initiatives are still in a relatively nascent stage and not yet widespread.
The speed with which French forces were expelled from Mali, Burkina Faso and CAR has left many observers wondering which country will turn its back on France next.
Demonstrators gather in Bangui on March 2022 to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine | Carol Valade/AFP via Getty Images
“The anti-French sentiment is everywhere. Wagner is only present in a couple of countries, but the Russian storytelling is everywhere,” warned the French government official, who said he feared less a domino effect than an “anti-French contagion” that would undermine French influence and economic interests.
A cartoon circulating on social media since January — which can be linked to the Prigozhin galaxy — depicts soldiers from Mali fighting back conquering French zombies with the help of Wagner mercenaries, and then similar scenes from Burkina Faso. In the final frames, a soldier from Ivory Coast comes to seek their help as well.
“The Russians are trying to create self-fulfilling prophecies,” the senior French diplomat said.