After years of empty promises by various French presidents that neocolonial relations between France and west Africa would be brought to an end, Emmanuel Macron’s eighteenth trip to Africa was a sharp reminder of the steady decline of French influence in the region.
President Emmanuel Macron’s African tour in early March was clearly a desperate attempt to counter the rising influence of Russia and China in the region, where the formerly dominant French imperialists have suffered a string of recent military and political defeats.
Burkina Faso is the latest country to have driven French troops from its territory and ended its ‘military agreement’ with Paris. A year ago, French forces were forced to leave the Sahel after Operation Barkhane failed to eradicate terrorism in the region. The Central African Republic, a historical ally of France, has also distanced itself from its former coloniser.
With the French gone, these countries have been turning to Russia for military assistance, perceiving it as an ally and partner rather than an exploiter preying on the region’s natural resources. Unsurprisingly, such a rapprochement between their former colonies and Russia is causing the French ruling class – and the western establishment in general – to break out into a cold sweat.
The BBC described the situation as follows: “Russia, hoping to rebuild the influence it had lost since the cold war decades, is offering security support to governments that feel under threat or isolated from the international mainstream: mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked military contractor Wagner are now operating in Mali and the Central African Republic, where they have been accused of human rights abuses.” (Emmanuel Macron’s mission to counter Russia in Africa by Paul Melly, BBC News, 4 March 2023)
“The age of Francafrique is well over,” declared Macron while standing in Libreville, stronghold of the Bongos – rulers of Gabon and its oil-rich soil for 60 years, and one of the most loyal Francafrique families.* No wonder the local people, tired of France’s constant hypocrisy, are increasingly turning to Russia, whose help is real and comes without strings. (Macron says era of French interference in Africa is ‘over’, Al Jazeera, 2 March 2023)
Time for compromise
In the context of extreme domestic tension in France, where huge workers’ demonstrations are taking place against pension reform (and against French involvement in Nato’s war in Ukraine), Macron’s trip to Africa might seem to be superfluous and ill-timed. But as a declining imperialist country, France cannot afford to lose one of its biggest sources of revenue – its ability to extract superprofits from its colonial spheres of influence.
However, growing civil society discontent against its military and economic presence in Africa is forcing the French ruling class to offer some decidedly unwilling concessions.
Reform of the CFA franc, a currency that was introduced during French colonial rule in Senegal, is one of the most pressing demands of the region’s people, who have gone so far as to burn CFA franc bills during demonstrations.
The currency, shared by 14 African countries and anchored to the euro, is rightly seen as a tool of neocolonial domination. “There is controversy among African politicians and economists about the role of the CFA franc in economic policy.
“The peg to the euro ensures an exceptionally stable currency. Compared to other African countries, government debt in CFA countries is significantly lower. And yet the CFA franc also creates disadvantages. In terms of economic policy, the peg to the euro limits industrialisation and hinders proactive state investments.” (No alternatives? Why monetary sovereignty matters so much to countries of the CFA franc zone by Robin Frisch, Megatrends Afrika, 30 August 2022)
Announced with great fanfare by Macron, some at least of the long-demanded reforms seemed finally to have arrived in December 2019. France promised a rebranding of the CFA franc to the less colonial-sounding ‘eco’, the withdrawal of French members from the supervisory body of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), and the removal of the condition that UEMOA states should deposit half their reserves in the French treasury.
Three and a half years later, none of the promised reforms has been put into effect. And, with China and Russia looking increasingly attractive as economic and military partners, able to give real assistance to countries seeking development and sovereignty, it seems unlikely that the patience of these long-suffering nations will extend indefinitely.
* Francafrique is a frequent target of anti-imperialists and pan-Africanists, who point out that after the wave of decolonisation in 1960, France propped up dictators in its former colonies in exchange for continued access to resources and military bases.