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Time’s up for France in Africa

While pulling out of the continent would, to some degree, diminish France’s global stature, the reality is that the country has other priorities that better reflect its vital interests.

Michael Shurkin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

I am a long-time watcher of France in Africa. I have published several, often-admiring papers on the subject, and frequently defend the country on social media. I have cheered French efforts to help the countries of the Sahel — most notably Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — to defend themselves against jihadist insurgencies affiliated with Al Qa’eda or the Islamic State.

And yet, the only reasonable conclusion to draw now is that France should close its bases and go.

The problem, as has been made clear by recent events in Niger, is that whatever France does, good or bad, provokes an allergic reaction from populations long conditioned to be suspicious of French motives and assume the worst.

Whether this anti-French sentiment is fair or not is entirely beside the point. Ties with France have now become a kiss of death for African governments — a phenomenon demonstrated by the fate of Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum.

How we got here is a long story that goes back to colonization, all the way through the decades following decolonization in 1960 — and there is plenty of blame to go around. Africa’s elites and their failures are a factor, as public opinion associates them with France. We can also point to the poverty of African political ideologies and populism, as well as the rise of new generations of young people frustrated by a status quo that, in their eyes, is of France’s making.

We must include the strategic errors made by French leaders too, from 1960 through to the present, as well as the economic and political relationships that have arguably hindered African countries’ economic and political development. And French President Emmanuel Macron’s famous tin ear has often made things worse.

However one wishes to apportion the blame, though, the reality is that French involvement, well-intentioned or not, has become counterproductive.

Pulling out of Africa would, to some degree, diminish France’s global stature, but the reality is that France — much like Britain — has plenty of strengths and, frankly, other priorities that better reflect its interests.

France’s own national security documents, including the recently passed five-year military programming law, make clear that the country’s vital interests are in Europe and, secondarily, in the Indo-Pacific — where it maintains the world’s second largest Exclusive Economic Zone thanks to its numerous overseas territories.

The Indo-Pacific is also where France conducts trade on a scale radically greater than its commerce with the African continent. According to France’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” paper, its commerce with the region represents a third of French trade outside of the European Union, and has grown 49 percent in the past decade. The African share of French commerce is smaller — and it’s shrinking, with the Sahel barely figuring in French trade statistics.

However, France can still rely on its soft power in the Sahel and the rest of Africa, and it should also learn to contest for favorable public opinion more effectively. This requires better communication and even propaganda, but not troops or aircraft. France should focus on information operations rather than the kind of expeditionary military prowess I’ve praised in the past and that earned the admiration of the U.S. military — especially during France’s 2013 intervention in Mali.

As for countering terrorism, the objective reality is that there isn’t much any outside power can achieve without a productive relationship with a partner nation, and only the residents of the countries threatened by terrorism can truly tackle the problem. If they don’t want outside help, that’s on them.

Meanwhile, the threat of Russia filling the vacuum is overstated and should not justify further involvement. Indeed, part of of Russia’s appeal is that many Africans see it as a sort of anti-France. And the less France lives “rent-free” in the popular imagination, the less Russia’s symbolic appeal will become.

Another part of Russia’s draw is that some African governments, Mali among them, are frustrated by France’s reticence to assist them in a strategy that all too often involves targeting certain ethnic communities — above all Fulanis but also Arabs and Tuaregs. And if that’s what they want help for, then France and other Western powers are right to refuse.

The fact that the U.S. and other European partners like Germany don’t provoke the same reaction does provide them an opening, a way to help fill the vacuum to keep Russia out and help African states defend themselves. But that will require them to care, and to exercise a greater degree of creativity than they have shown thus far.

It will also mean that France will have to trust them in its former Empire. This was a stumbling block as late as the 1990s, but at this point, Paris is ready.

And, really, it has no choice.

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