France’s relationship with Africa has been long, complex and often murky. Her colonies once rivaled the British Empire on the continent, running from Morocco in the north-west to Madagascar in the south east. Her influence remains strong. Half a century after the map of Africa was transformed by the independence movement, over one in ten of the continent’s people still speak French.
Françafrique was the term coined in 1955 by former Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny to describe the desire to maintain a privileged relationship with France post-independence. Thirty years later, for many people the term now encapsulates all that is wrong with France’s relationship with her former colonies.
In many people’s minds, Françafrique became linked with envelopes of cash and suitcases of diamonds secretly transferred between the political, business and military elites on both sides of the Mediterranean. So the declaration from President François Hollande last year on a trip to Senegal that the days of Françafrique were over was widely welcomed by African commentators. The daily newspaper of the Democratic Republic of Congo – where Hollande participated in the Francophonie summit of French-speaking countries – said it marked a new beginning characterised by “honesty, respect and equality”.
It was not the first time that a French leader has pronounced Françafrique as dead. His predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy promised the same. But President Hollande followed up his words with the denunciation of France’s brutal colonial rule over Algeria.
But this does not mean that France under Hollande’s leadership is turning its back on Africa. Indeed for a man who is not known for his love or knowledge of the continent, it has formed a large part of his foreign policy and personal profile-building.
Just a few weeks after his remarks about Algeria, he approved a military intervention to take back northern Mali from jihadist rebel fighters. But if the intervention in Mali is a continuation of France’s military presence across the continent over the past decades, Hollande’s approach marks a clear cut with the past.
Hollande and his Government were keen to stress that the decision to intervene was not led by France, but by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). French troops were said to be responding to Malian pleas and with the support of regional African and global allies. It is a war against terrorism, not for French interests.
Hollande’s resolute stand in the face of American scepticism and his on-going support in the fight against insecurity in the wider Sahel region earned him the Félix-Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize. He was also noticeably the only European head of state at the African Union’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
But there are many who continue to doubt whether France’s relations with Africa are all that different. Despite his finger-wagging speech on human rights in Kinshasa last year, Hollande has been criticised for working with autocratic and repressive leaders, including Chadian President Idriss Déby and Gabon’s autocratic heir Ali Bongo.
What happens in Africa matters to France. A recent Chatham House report said the country’s influence on the continent remains greater than anywhere else in the world. But it is also influence which is under pressure.
French businesses, which long enjoyed privileged links in Africa, are facing competition from Chinese and other international counterparts. Since the end of the Cold War, the country’s military and security influence has weakened. France’s cultural influence, too, is at risk, as Kagame turns Rwanda away from the French language toward English, with Gabon following the same path.
It may, however, be France’s role in helping Africa combat the transnational threat of terrorism which underpins a new and modern relationship. Hollande has called for Africa to develop the military and civil capacity to contain instability in the Sahel. Following terrorist explosions in Niger this May, and repeated threats against France from Al-Qaeda’s North African division, he has also made it clear that French troops will stay in the region if necessary.
In December, Hollande will host several African heads of state in Paris for a summit on peace and security. It may be this common threat which finally reorientates Franco-African relations away from a difficult past toward a common, peaceful and more equal future.
Caroline Boin is an Account Manager at Portland. She was previously Project Director at the International Policy Network.