Wither Françafrique? France’s fading role in African Great Power Competition


“Death to France and its alli es!” In Bamako, Mali’s capital, demonstrators gathered in January of 2022, for an anti-France demonstration supported by the transitional government that had taken power the year prior. Across the sea of people were signs bearing the French tricolor with a skull in the middle.

Since 2013, French forces operated beside their Malian counterparts as a part of the French counterterrorism operations Serval, and then Barkhane. Today, the relationship, which weathered several coups prior is no more; French forces withdrew just last year, following a diplomatic row that saw the expulsion of the French Ambassador in Bamako. Now, Wagner mercenaries have replaced the French forces in the country’s anti-terror struggle—to little success. In fact, Wagner forces have been credibly accused by a recent United Nations report of massacring, raping, and torturing over 500 civilians in Moura, in the Mopti region. 

With France’s position in the region growing tenuous, and increasing competition from myriad state and non-state actors, is this the end of Françafrique? Will China, Russia, or other actors supplant the old neocolonial order for a new one? And how will this effect the region’s security, and economy? 

From colonial robbery to counterterrorism

Since the first modern encounter between Europe and Africa, the relationship has been defined by exploitation. The various expeditions deep into the heart of the continent were aimed at one primary goal; extracting the continent’s resources, whether rubber, gold, or diamonds, and exploiting human capital, through slavery. The British had come to Egypt to control the Suez, and South Africa to extract a fourth of the world’s gold, and diamonds. The French came to Algeria to extract the Algerian Dey’s fortune. Belgium, known for their extreme cruelty against the Congolese under Leopold II, came for rubber. All of the ‘great’ European empires pillaged the continent of its vast natural resources, and murdered the native population to achieve the greatest heist of all time—the robbery of Africa’s future. 

The most radical reorganization of the global order in the last century, the World Wars, brought down the colonial period—but not colonialism. While much of Africa achieved independence in the 1950s, and 1960s, colonization was replaced by a system of spheres of influence that matched historical delineations of European domination. 

Thus, Françafrique, or the French pré carré was born. The French colonial presence in much of North and West Africa was replaced by an exclusive economic, and politico-military arrangement. French patronage became paramount; providing economic stability and opportunity through the Central African Franc (CAF), and investments from companies like the French energy giant, Totalenergies, and regime security through French military deployments throughout the region. 

Françafrique is about paternalism and patronage; ensuring the privileged French position on the continent—in spite of the lost of empire experienced through decolonization. Today, it has manifested itself heavily in the French counterterrorism operations, like Serval, and Barkhane. Since America’s Global War on Terror began, the specter of jihadism across West Africa has especially driven the forward deployment of French forces to the region. Excluding the recent case of inter-ethnic violence in South Sudan, the ethno-nationalist conflicts of the 1990s have largely been replaced by a new norm of creeping Islamist destabilization. 

As Catherine Gegout points out in Why Europe Intervenes in Africa: Security Prestige and the Legacy of Colonialism, European interventions throughout the colonial, and post-colonial period were predicated primarily on upholding security. In the period prior to 9/11, this was namely a question of cooperation with African states—where uncooperative regimes were ousted in favor of more pliable ones. This has shifted from maintaining friendly proxies to uphold European security, to explicitly combatting terrorism. Economic interests have waned as a driving factor, as new actors like China have supplanted the old European neocolonialism. Finally, the traditional historical ties have waned as a factor of relations—with France shifting focus from their traditional Francophone core, to Anglophone countries like Nigeria. 

La Mort

It seems that the death of Françafrique is predicated on two assumptions; the first is an economic assumption, and the second a politico-military one. France’s position as a driver of economic opportunity is fading. The CAF is a prime example of French dominion—a currency wholly controlled by Paris for their own profit, imposed upon its former subjects. Furthermore, China has become a principal partner of much of Sub-Saharan Africa. From Equatorial Guinea, to Ethiopia, and as far south as Zambia, Chinese investment projects continue to multiply. In Kenya, China has funded to the cost of over $4. 7billion, the Nairobi-Mombasa railway, and built up industrial zones within the country to connect them to the port of Mombasa. In

Zambia, over $6 billion in loans are held by Beijing, which is over 65% of their debt. This has brought Chinese companies to invest in Zambian copper mines, allowing for the country to extract natural resources to fuel its economic engines. China has quickly supplanted France, economically, a trend that will surely continue. 

The other key factor, is a failure of onerous French operations in the Sahel. French efforts at defeating Jihadists have been complimented by measures to promote good governance. France has been keenly aware that the problems facing the region cannot be solved solely by military force. France’s promotion of Western, democratic values does not resonate well with both traditional elites, who are keen to stay in power, and the starving masses who seek food security, and stability. Take Mali, for example. Prior to the September 2020 coup, the economy was in shambles, with 15% youth unemployment, and people were quite literally starving in the streets because of extreme poverty—which increased to over 19% by 2022. European lectures on liberal-democratic values, which manifests itself in conditioned economic aid, are no solution to the immediate challenge of poverty and starvation. 

Searching for alternatives

Chinese money has become a plentiful alternative to neocolonial relations with old colonial masters, and Russian military assistance, through Wagner mercenaries and military aid, has become an alternative to the French Army. Both of those options, despite the threat of Chinese‘debt trap diplomacy’, and the ineffectual and violent performance of Wagner, are stabilizing for political elites across Africa. Chinese aid does not come with conditions like Western development assistance, and Wagner is unlikely to raise issues of ethical war-fighting like the French Army would. This is a win-win alternative to the traditional western neocolonialism. 

But what does it mean for the region? 

Instability in West Africa will continue to be an underlying feature of the regional system. This intractable reality is not going to change, regardless of the changing preponderance of influence and power of external actors within the region. Chinese aid, nor Wagner mercenaries, will be able to transform the underlying social, and political conditions that make the region rife for instability and chaos. It is unlikely that the threat of Jihadism, the primary security concern for much of Europe, will ebb. This will become an increasing concern for the European Union, as they try to further integrate the continent’s disparate security architecture. 

While it’s true that a greater Chinese, and Russian presence is a boon for authoritarian elite, this is not a major implication. In fact, for example, the French have only been marginally committed to democracy in the region. In Mali, the French have had no qualms with working with the various juntas, so long as they were cooperative. That being said, neither the Chinese nor the Russians make any illusions to supporting any sort of democratization or liberal values in West Africa; they are markedly more transactional than the French. 

As Françafrique passes, neocolonialism will be here to stay. The very existence of Françafrique is anathema to the aspirations of the people of West Africa, and to the elites who cling to power. As the position of Africa in the world continues to grow, with the continent to expected double its population by 2050, to a quarter of the global population, competition will continue to heat up between the great powers. Françafrique will be replaced by a diverse arena for competition, where the old neocolonial powers are replaced by new ones. 

SirMichael T. Cianci
SirMichael T. Cianci
SirMichael Cianci is a graduate student of Johns Hopkins SAIS, focusing on Security, Strategy, and Statecraft, and Asia. SirMichael’s work focuses on US and Japanese Indo-Pacific strategy.