On the 12th of October 2012, Francois Hollande made a speech to the crowds assembled in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. He told them ‘The time of Françafrique is over. There is France and there is Africa. There is a partnership between France and Africa’
The day before, the French president had confirmed that the French military would give logistical support to Malian troops. Three months later logistical support became military support as French troops landed in the country. French soldiers were crucial in helping government forces retake the West African nation. Their active presence is now winding down.
The very arrival of the French army was enough to prompt shouts of ‘Françafrique!’ from critics. Many fear that the Malian government’s invitation to the French will lead to a protracted stay, and a return to the neo-colonial interference of the 20th century.
Alex Burd went to the School of African and Oriental Studies [SOAS] in Russell Square, London, to talk to Dr Marie Rodet, an expert in Francophone Africa to discuss the scale and impact of Françafrique on the former colonies and their masters.
This podcast explores the past and the present of Franco-African relations. From the history and the structure of the relationship and Malian independence to the motives for French intervention in Mali and the future of Françafrique.
Alex started by asking Dr Rodet what’ Françafrique’ means.
MARIE RODET: Well Françafrique is the combination of two words, France and Afrique – Africa – and it was coined probably around the 50s, 60s. Not especially from a negative point of view at the time. It was Houphouet-Boigny, the first President of the Ivory Coast who came up with this word.
But later it was taken over by people criticising the complex relationship between France and its former colonies. The idea was that these relationships were obscure and they were sponsored by obscure financial means like the Africa-Élysées http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7afrique cell . That’s why it has been highly criticised. Money will have been dedicated to support a specific coup and specific corrupt financial relationships between France and former French colonies in Africa. So regularly in the history of the relationship between France and its former colonies you get the term being used. But it is not only with former colonies, it is in connection with all African countries where France has important investments and economical interests. So for example we can include in Françafrique, Equatorial Guinea. And at some point we could have included Rwanda which is no longer very good friends with France following the genocide.
So regularly in the history you have this term coming up, especially in the media, not only in France but more generally in Europe and in the Western world and in Africa. People suggesting that it would be the continuing model of the relationship between France and the African ‘backlot’.
ALEX BURD: You mentioned that it was linked to aid. Is it generally used in relation to economics – where the French would send aid to their former colonies?
MR: Most of the time it’s not about aid but rather about French interests in Africa. It is also about the sponsoring of specific elections, not only in Africa but back in France. There are rumours, for example, that Omar Bongo, the former President of Gabon had supported presidential elections financially in France for twenty years.
So it’s a network of influence and of people involved as intermediaries between the interests of a certain elite in Africa and the political power in France.
AB: Mali was one of the former colonies and it is the one that France is currently involved with. What was their path to independence like? Democratic or more violent?
MR: I wouldn’t say it was a violent one, but it was not a completely peaceful one either. It was a complex one. At first, in 1959, Mali and Senegal tried to build together a federation – the Malian federation – composed of what was known at the time as the Sudanese Republic (nowadays Mali, and Senegal). It got full independence from France in 1960 as a federation but soon after, a couple of months later, the federation broke up, probably because of political influence and disagreements about the leadership of the federation – there were just too many leaders. From Mali there was Modibo Keita and from Senegal, Sédar Senghor .
Senghor was closer to France, he was not for breaking up the relationship with France. Modibo Keita, on the other hand, was clearly a socialist and was willing to move away from this network of influence with France. Probably what happened is that Senghor, with the support of France was able to break up the Federation (Charles de Gaulle – General de Gaulle at the time – was not on good terms at all with Modibo Keita, nor with the federation of which Modibo Keita was about to gain the leadership). Senghor accused Modibo Keita of being willing to engineer a coup or something like that. So from the start, the first President of Mali was not especially in this so-called Françafrique relationship, not on good terms with France (especially with General de Gaulle) because he was a socialist and willing to implement a clear socialist policy in Mali.
AB: You say that Senegal is much closer to France following independence than Mali was. Did other former colonies like Niger and Ivory Coast follow the Senegalese path or the Malian?
MR: No, you can’t really compare the relationship between Mali and France to the relationship between Gabon and France or the Ivory Coast and France. There are not the same economic interests in Mali, it has a low key economic interest for France (though that might change). That is why it would be too simplistic to read the French intervention in Mali as a pure product of Françafrique. In Mali there are no big economic or political interests for France. It is very different in neighbouring countries like Niger, Ivory Coast, Gabon, even Senegal, partly because the French community in countries like the Ivory Coast and Senegal is much more sizeable than in Mali.
AB: Many former French colonies in West Africa have, since independence, experienced conflict. France has intervened, or not intervened, with differing success, or levels of involvement. Why does France continue to get itself involved in the business of what happens in its former colonies?
MR: That’s a very complex question, but it is important to keep in mind that since independence there have been a number of governments in France and in Africa. You have had political change. Since independence you have not had exactly the same kind of policy towards Africa. I wouldn’t even say that France has an official African policy. Take, for example, the Ivory Coast. Most of the intervientions – even the latest one in Saint-Affrique – were accompanied by official French claims that they were there to protect their own citizens and it was not about supporting or contesting the political power. Of course, on the one hand there are the official claims and on the other there is the practice. The situation on the ground may change and the initial intentions may have to be adapted to the situation on the ground.
So to come back to the military intervention in Mali. I think the French were prepared to intervene – but they didn’t know when or how. In this case what the French were very much concerned about was not their own economic interests in Mali – because they do not have so many – no, they were much more concerned about the consequences of such a conflict on neighbouring countries like Niger where they have really big interests with Areva [the nuclear power company] and Uranium. It was probably concern about the idea of expanding terrorism and Islamism in the whole region. When you think of Afghanistan, for example, you think, ‘well it is really far away so even if there are increasing problems there, the effect won’t be that immediate on Europe’. But when you think of Mali and the Sahel there are so many immigrants into Europe, relationships, historical networks etc. that Europe cannot afford to have such a conflict geographically so close to Europe. I guess that was one of the main concerns for the French. They tried to convince the US and other countries – but it didn’t work very well last year, until the French apparently with intelligence, were able to find out that Sanogo [leader of 2012 coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure] and his troops in Bamako, in central Mali, were in contact with the Islamists in the north to find common interests in having a continued destabilised situation and were trying to remove the interim President Dioncounda Traoré. That is why the French intervened. Because they understood that if Sanogo was able to completely destabilise the whole political situation then the conflict would expand and terrorism would expand.
They were also very wary of the potential attraction of such a conflict for young people in France. You can see the impact of the conflict in Palestine and Israel on the situation in France. France has been the victim of terrorism in the past, and anti-Semitic action, and Palestine and Israel do not even have a close historical relationship with France. But with Mali there is an important Malian community in France and so because of the history, and the historical links, the French government definitely felt linked to what was happening in Mali at the time.
AB: So the security concerns are genuine?
MR: Yes, definitely.
AB: : Jacques Godfrain, foreign minister to Jacques Chirac, said that ‘a little country, like France, with a small amount of strength can move a planet because of our relations with 15 or 20 African countries.’ Is the relationship with West Africa a way of maintaining French prestige?
MR: It is difficult to say. On the one side, both President Sarkozy and now President Hollande took a clear stance to say ‘we will end Françafrique’, or we will revisit or rethink the relationships. And I believe that they tried to do it. But it is a slow process and you still have these complex relationships going on – on both sides lots of people who have an interest in not changing the relationship.
But to come back to the issue of the Mali conflict, I believe this was not about protecting French influence in West Africa. It was a security issue. It was clear that if Mali, which is a landlocked country in the middle of West Africa in connection directly with the Sahara and in the south bordering the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, were to become completely destabilised it would be really dangerous for neighbouring countries and the whole region.
The Ivory Coast had been partly destabilised politically for the last decade. But other countries had experienced a kind of working democratic change in the past decade and Mali was seen as a model for that. Unfortunately it was not exactly the case. However, it was in the interests of the French (and not only the French – the Americans and international donors, too) to believe that Mali was a model for democracy. They invested a lot of aid money into the country at this time.
I think they probably invested for ‘stabilisation’ reasons as well. The Sahelian zone is prone to be destabilised because of poverty, refugee movements and all these factors increase the risk of people getting involved in illegal businesses and trafficking. There is a lot of trafficking – not only of cigarettes, goods and drugs but also human trafficking of immigrants trying to get to Europe through Mali and Libya etc. These networks were in the hands of people who at some point claimed they wanted an independent country because they wanted to maintain a hold of these networks. That’s why it’s not always clear whether for the terrorists it is an issue of Islamism or an issue of making good business in this part of the world, which is less under control from the central states because it is such a huge area, geographically.
AB: You mentioned the Ivory Coast briefly at the start. The closer relationship between Ivory Coast and France has been credited for being behind the ‘Ivorian miracle’ which led to a boost to their industrial and economic output as they started out being independent. Is Françafrique mutually beneficial? Or does one side tend to come off better?
MR: Well I guess that there is a specific elite in West Africa, and the rest of the continent, which may have profited from the relationship – political leaders of the past 50 years who have just been empowered by the relationship, but at the expenses of the local population. Of course you always have an elite interested in maintaining these relationships in France, because then France, can say, ‘we don’t interfere too much in what you are doing , but at the same time you must make sure that our interests in your country are protected.’ So it is mutually beneficial in the sense that it’s beneficial to a certain elite in Africa and to a certain economic and political elite in France. But in the long term I’m not sure it’s beneficial to anybody.
AB: It’s a similar relationship to what existed before independence where the people put in place by the French leadership continue to benefit whereas the general public see no benefit from the relationship.
MR: Yes, that’s a good comparison. It is why we talk about neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism in post-colonial Africa. Not only by France but by other political Western powers. The fact that they do everything to maintain their own interest there at the expenses, again, of the interests of the local population and in favour of the political elite.
AB: The individuals put in power by the French continue to benefit but why do you think that there isn’t a great push from within the African nations to break away from France?
MR: That is probably why you regularly have coups! In Africa part of the population doesn’t agree with this kind of political configuration. They see that members of the elite are getting richer and richer while they experience impoverishment.
The problem in Mali, to come back again to the Mali issue, is that for the past 20 years, they have experienced bad governance, corruption. And at the same time, internationally, Mali was advertised as a good model for democracy, but that was not – at all – the experience of the population. Within this context you understand why, when the coup happened,it was not contested by the population. The coup was not prepared at all; it was just an uprising in the military. It happened just because the President left and there was a void of power, so in the end the military said ‘well, we are in charge.’
There was so much discontent in the population with the current political situation that they naively welcomed this coup, thinking that maybe it would bring some change, a new political power, a new political elite in this country. So it was quite well received because people were just frustrated, there were so many people disenfranchised and impoverished by the situation in Mali for the past 10 years that of course people were hoping that it would bring something new and for the best.
And at the same time in the north you had the uprising, the rebellion for independence, by the Tuareg – which was also a response to some extent to the bad governance which was coming from Bamako. So while in the north you had rebellion, in the south you had a coup.
AB: Do you foresee an end to Françafrique or are France and its former colonies stuck in a cycle?
MR: In Mali, no one was ready to intervene – the UN was really slow at supporting this military intervention. It was only when the French intervened that all the international organisations started backing up the intervention. If the French had not intervened we’d still be waiting for an international intervention now, with the risk we all know about – expanding terrorism, expanding political destabilisation in the whole region.
I guess that very simply the best way to break with this cycle of mutual corruption between France and Africa and these kinds of complex networks of influence is to encourage good governance on both sides and to make strong political institutions. The problem is, that in the 80s, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank implemented structural adjustment agreements in these countries. The former colonies didn’t have much power compared to states in Europe. They were pressured to get rid of the few prerogatives they had because they were accused of being corrupted. So all the public services had to be privatised – and to whom? Big western companies, France Telecom for example, and EDF (Électricité de France). They are very strong now in Africa.
It is little wonder that many disenfranchised people in Africa get frustrated with the politicians and have the impression that a few of them capture the aid and are involved in corruption. But those same politicians are under pressure from the international institutions to sell the state one piece after another.
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