After hitting several resets, restoring historic treasures to former colonies, downsizing its military presence and striking new ties elsewhere on the continent, France’s Africa strategy seems at an impasse, some experts say.
Coups in half a dozen former French colonies in West and Central Africa over three years — including two, in Niger and Gabon, in just over a month — are sparking fresh soul searching about what went wrong and how, if possible, to put longstanding relations and interests back on track.
Yet many suggest Paris can no longer call the shots, as some African governments cut ties altogether and carve new ones with foreign rivals, including Russia.
“French influence in the Sahel has collapsed,” wrote France’s influential Le Monde newspaper this past week. “Elsewhere on the continent, it is on the defensive, and nothing Paris says can restore it.”
That assessment comes as the paper and other media report that discussions between Paris and Niger’s military are under way about the withdrawal of some military elements from the African country.
Until now, French authorities have refused to recognize the military junta that seized power in Niger in late July, dismissing calls for its ambassador and 1,500 French troops stationed there to depart.
The power grab in Niamey followed a now-familiar playbook. Not so long ago, Niger, along with neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, cooperated closely with Paris in a broader Sahel alliance fighting a jihadist insurgency. All three since have seen civilian leaders toppled by their militaries, followed by protests, sprinkled with Russian flags and slogans calling for the ouster of French forces and diplomats.
The latest coup last week in oil-rich Gabon — once a staunch and long-standing ally of Paris — has taken a different path. Unlike in Niger, there have been no planeloads of French expatriates returning home or massive anti-French rallies. Although Paris suspended military cooperation — even though it has 400 troops in Gabon — it offered a muted reaction to the toppling of long-term leader Ali Bongo by his reported cousin, following disputed presidential elections.
Junta leader Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema has restored the transmission of French broadcasters France 24 and Radio France International, cut under Bongo — while the three Sahel coup countries, Burkina Faso, Mail and Niger, continue to keep those news organizations off the air.
Listening to Africans?
Berges Miette, an Africa research associate at Sciences-Po Bordeaux University in France, Miette takes the long view of simmering anti-French sentiment. In the late 1980s, he says, France continued to support some hardline regimes that held onto power, despite a wave of political uprisings.
African youth, Miette says, have now “stopped dreaming,” pinning their hopes instead on heading to Europe.
While so far staying silent on Gabon, French President Emmanuel Macron has decried an “epidemic of putsches” in the Sahel. Two other coups — in Guinea and Chad — have also taken place since 2020, with a mixed response from France. The French have maintained ties with Chad, a strong military ally in the Sahel, drawing accusations of having a double standard.
In a lengthy interview in Le Monde, Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna defended France’s Africa strategy. She differentiated the ousting of Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, with the situation in Chad, where she said Paris counted on N’Djamena’s military government delivering on its promise to restore civilian rule.
“One cannot see our relations with the continent through the single prism” of the Sahel crises, Colonna added. “It’s not 3,000 or 5,000 people demonstrating in a stadium in Niamey … that can resume our relations with 1.5 million Africans.”
France’s position, she said, “is to listen to Africans, not to decide in their place.”
For a while, Macron — born after France’s last colony in Africa, Djibouti, gained its independence — seemed the right man for the job.
“I am of a generation that doesn’t tell Africans what to do,” he told cheering students in Burkina Faso, shortly after his election six years ago.
Macron pledged to return looted colonial-era artifacts, although only a fraction has been shipped back, and sought new ties elsewhere, including with Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia and Angola. Like his recent predecessors, he maintained that the tangle of post-colonial business and political ties dubbed Francafrique was long dead.
In February, Macron promised to draw down French forces in Africa and create a new “security partnership,” with bases on the continent transformed depending on African needs, and jointly managed with African staff.
A coherent policy
Skeptics say Macron hasn’t always walked his talk. They point to many enduring trappings of French influence — from thousands of troops still stationed in Africa to a raft of longstanding mining concessions benefitting French companies, and the CFA franc, requiring West and Central African members to deposit half their foreign exchange reserves with the French treasury.
Anti-French sentiment is on the rise in more stable countries, like Senegal, due to a youthful population untethered to the past, but very aware of the challenges of getting visas to France.
Critics point to what they consider a series of French missteps, too, in the Sahel. Despite early wins, France’s decade-long counterterrorism operation there lost local trust, they say, and finally was shuttered last year amid a spreading Islamist insurgency. Even as France promotes democracy, skeptics describe a tacit acceptance of some authoritarian governments like Chad.
“France needs to have a coherent policy,” says Sciences-Po researcher Miette, who argues anti-French sentiment is not the real threat to Paris, but rather “a profound questioning of France’s Africa policy.”
He counts among those who believe it is not too late for Paris to hit the reset button yet again. With other authoritarian regimes potentially at risk of falling — in Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea — the sooner, the better.
“France has everything to win in changing its Africa policy,” Miette says. “It needs to go beyond talk and be concrete.”