For decades, France has kept control over its old African colonies by backing pliant local strongmen. Recent coups in Niger and Gabon against governments accused of alignment to Paris show that France’s informal empire is breaking apart.

French president Emmanuel Macron (L) meets with Gabon’s president Ali Bongo Ondimba (R) for a bilateral meeting in Libreville, Gabon, March 1, 2023. Bongo has since been ousted in a coup. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

On Monday, General Brice Oligui Ngeuma was declared interim president of Gabon. His investiture, supposedly promising an eventual democratic “transition,” came after the bogus reelection of longtime ruler Ali Bongo, and his arrest by the military. Bongo, a French partner, had taken over the reins in 2009 upon the death of his father, who had been the central African country’s effective president-for-life since 1967 — most of the period since Gabon won its independence from Paris.

The eighth coup in a former French colony since 2020, events in Gabon were more than anything driven by popular exhaustion with the Bongo dynasty. But they also had something to say about France’s waning influence. The same day as Ngeuma’s takeover, French foreign minister Catherine Colonna told Le Monde: “Françafrique has been dead for a long time.” With this term, she referred to the close commercial and military ties that France maintained in its former empire in the decades after formal decolonization.

Events elsewhere in the Sahel show, yet more starkly, how much anti-French sentiment is breaking apart these ties and the governments bound up in them. Take the case of Niger. In late July, military officers in the capital Niamey ousted the French-aligned, democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum. The junta in power has since stared down threats of military intervention — spurred on by Paris — from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional body, led by countries such as Nigeria and Senegal.

In truth, while some in Paris still speak of an “Africa policy,” this is today a rudderless project, as lingering assumptions of national prerogative are eclipsed by declining French influence and capabilities. Former colonies in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa have their own internal power struggles. Yet the resentment against governments seen as subservient to Paris also expresses deep-seated dissatisfaction with French military presence, its inability to win an ill-conceived “war on terror,” and Paris’s habit of propping up pliant local power brokers.

French Paternalism

As part of a long-standing ritual, French leaders are quick to claim that the country has turned the page on postcolonial paternalism. French president Emmanuel Macron said as much at the beginning of his presidency in 2017, heralding before students in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, the end of France’s “African policy.”

But this has been slow to translate into a serious reset. Sheltered from public debate back in France, and increasingly divorced from any measurable material interest, there is a great deal of habit and inertia in France’s presence in the region, which has nurtured a groundswell of anti-French opinion, in part aided by Russian misinformation campaigns.

Since the early 2010s, France has been engaged in a protracted counterinsurgency operation across the Sahel, seeking to prop up the ribbon of landlocked states from Mali and Burkina Faso to Chad. (Ironically, much of the initial instability that French forces sought to contain was exacerbated by the move, backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, to topple Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011).

Mali and Burkina Faso were the scenes of successful putsches in 2020 and 2022, respectively, after which the new juntas moved to expel French military forces and diplomatic personnel. Those forces, alongside the French military contingent in the Central African Republic, were relocated to Niger, which is now the scene of a standoff as the junta has demanded that Paris withdraw its remaining 1,500 troops and recall its ambassador, Sylvain Itté.

In an August 28 speech before the senior diplomatic corps, Macron defended France’s interventions. He reaffirmed his refusal to accede to the junta’s demands, reiterating Paris’s stance that the new power brokers are illegitimate. On September 6, however, Le Monde reported that the French military has entered negotiations with the new authorities in Niamey to organize an eventual withdrawal of the expeditionary forces. In an apparent move to de-escalate, the junta’s appointed prime minister indicated on September 4 that the government hopes to “maintain a cooperation” with France.

The Serval and Barkhane operations — the initial 2013 intervention to quell an offensive of Islamist groups in northern Mali and the Sahel-wide counterinsurgency operation that it developed into — “were a success,” Macron told Le Point on August 23. In his speech days later, he commented that “if we cede to the ridiculous arguments advanced by this loony alliance of pseudo-Pan-Africanists and neo-imperialists [a reference to Russia’s Wagner militia group, which has been hired by former French clients like Mali and Central African Republic], we’ve lost our minds.”

“Niger was the last real bridgehead for French forces in the Sahel, it was absolutely essential for France’s military presence in the region,” opposition France Insoumise MP Arnaud Le Gall told Jacobin. “We bet everything on a military response — and people still cling to the idea that Barkhane was a success, as Macron said again in his [August 28 speech]. But Barkhane was a major failure — we’re in the process of being expelled from a third nation in the Sahel.”

Right from the ouster of Niger’s president Bazoum, Macron rejected any and all overtures to the new military junta. In his speech last week, Macron doubled down, denouncing an “epidemic of putsches” and reaffirming French support for a possible intervention by ECOWAS powers, calling for “neither paternalism, nor weakness.”

“A military threat is exactly what will reinforce the junta in Niger,” says Le Gall, who also points to France’s shifting and inconsistent response to power grabs in these states. He noted the hypocrisy of Paris’s stance toward Chad, where Mahamat Idriss Déby assumed power in 2021 after the death of his father Idriss Déby, who had ruled the country since 1990. “On the one hand we anointed Déby in Chad, while we’ve condemned putsches in Mali, Burkina Faso, and now Niger.”

Send in the Troops (Again)?

Macron’s stance has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Mediterranean. According to French diplomatic sources, the possibility of an ECOWAS intervention in Niger was always a long shot, and Macron’s advisers should have known that it was either a less than credible bluff by wary heads of state, or a reckless misreading of their own leverage. Algeria as well as continental bodies like the African Union have come out against a possible intervention, while US secretary of state Antony Blinken agreed that there was “no acceptable military solution.”

“Macron’s speech was a very awkward last nail in the coffin,” Nicolas Normand, French ambassador to Mali between 2002 and 2006, told Jacobin. “He’s being poorly advised and just doesn’t seem to understand the situation. . . . We’re supporting someone who’s lost. A speech like this might have made sense if Bazoum had a chance to regain power [in Niger],” Normand continued, “but since that’s inconceivable at this point, making these kinds of declarations only creates problems for us.”

“France no longer has the means to do this,” one French source on post in the region, who requested anonymity, said of Macron’s saber-rattling. “To take as a starting point the idea that France can decide what goes on in its former colonies is a form of blindness, notably in terms of our own capacities. Even the United States today no longer has the means to manipulate other countries as was possible in the past.”

Macron has even found himself at odds with Washington, which has been hardly discreet about its willingness to establish a rapport with the de facto military power-holders in Niamey. Victoria Nuland, the United States’ acting deputy secretary of state, was sent to establish a dialogue with the junta in early August, although the visit quickly turned sour. Days after the putsch, Kathleen Fitzgibbon was appointed ambassador, filling a two-year absence in the position. French diplomats took both moves as a slap in the face.

Fearing more than anything Russian or Chinese exploitation of a stubborn Western response, feeding into the loop of anti-French social media campaigns, the United States is eager to establish some working relationship with the new government, having provided upward of $500 million in military aid since 2012 and boasting a drone base and 1,100 military personnel.

“France and the United States represent two extremes,” says Normand. “The right position would have been to condemn the coup and demand the return of the elected government, and after three days, when nothing happened, just shut up and establish informal ties. That’s been the position of all European countries besides France.”

An Adieu to Global-Power Status

For all of France’s heckling, however, there is a strong gravitational pull to establish a modus operandi with the new administrations popping up across the Sahel, essential as they are in the European Union’s attempts to block off migrant routes before they reach the Mediterranean. A meeting of European foreign ministers in Toledo, Spain on August 31 saw divergences between France and its European allies, whom Paris long sought to enroll alongside it for the Sahel military operations.

“Europe views this region exclusively through the prism of migration,” says France Insoumise legislator Le Gall. “That greatly isolates Macron, who has bet a lot on his ability to represent Europe on foreign policy, defense, and ‘strategic autonomy.’ We brought nine European states into our interventions, and it’s turned into a fiasco for which we are one of the leading causes.”

Besides “stability” — a watchword for governing migration movements —it would be an exaggeration to say that concrete French interests have straitjacketed Paris into maintaining an overbearing presence in the region. Niger does still provide 17 percent of France’s annual uranium supply, a considerable share for a country dependent on nuclear energy, but one that’s “not irreplaceable,” a French source said. But taken together, only 2 percent of French foreign commerce is with sub-Saharan Africa.

As with the United States’ “forever wars,” there’s an element of irrationality in the lingering obstinacy of French planners to hold onto a foothold in west Africa. In the imaginary of the country’s foreign-policy circles, a strong presence in the region was a springboard for France’s role as global power, punching above its weight.

France’s foreign policy is also buckling under institutional constraints, according to Le Gall, who points to the presidency’s near total domination over foreign policy to explain Paris’s seeming inability to change strategy.

“At the heart of the problem is the fact that these matters are barely discussed,” Le Gall told Jacobin. “Of course, the United States has had its fair share of neo-imperial interventions, but they were debated, Congress conducted investigations, and when Afghanistan and Iraq became controversial, members of the executive were grilled by Congress. We’ve had none of that and it’s shocking. Parliament has no serious oversight over foreign policy.”

A general retreat has not yet been called. But the question “Who lost Africa?” can be expected to recur in French headlines for the foreseeable future, as the time for finger-pointing begins. According to the French source on post in the region, “there’s an emotional attachment to a certain idea of French power among our military establishment. For years, our military has been geared toward stabilization missions, forward operations, and external projection of power. To hear that it’s over will be very complicated, psychologically speaking.”

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