France is facing so much anger from West Africa

Paul Melly
Africa analyst

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption

Many protests have been witnessed by Mali in opposition to France

Everything started out so positive. How did things go wrong? Why is France so popular in Africa today?

French President Emmanuel Macron increased French aid to Africa, began the return of cultural objects stolen in colonial wars and went beyond inter-governmental ties to reach out to younger generations and civil societies.

French troops were stationed in Sahel to defeat the militant jihadists. They also supported Ecowas regional bloc, which tries defend electoral politics from military takeovers.

To publicly admit French mistakes during the 1994 genocide, he traveled to Rwanda in this year’s presidential election.

His country, however, is the subject of a hostrageous array of African criticisms and complaints.

Last month protestors repeatedly blocked the passage of a French convoy heading north to aid in fighting Islamist militants. It was crossing Burkina Faso, Niger.

In September Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Maïga was met with a wave of sympathetic comment when he used a speech at the UN to accuse France of “abandoning his country in mid-flight”, after Mr Macron began to scale back the deployment of troops in the country.

Progressive West African commentators as well as urban youth are now urging the abolishment of the CFA Franc, a regional currency that is used in many Francophone countries. It is linked to the euro by a French government guarantee. France insists that it is a guarantee of economic stability, while critics claim it allows France to manage the economies in those countries.

Neo-colonial arrogance

Why is this paradox so surprising? What is the explanation for this paradox?

Yes, Macron’s confident – some would argue arrogant – personal style plays a part.

He’s made his fair share of diplomatic errors.

Following the November 2019 helicopter accident in Mali that claimed 13 French soldiers’ lives, he requested that West African leaders travel to France for an urgent summit. This was a neocolonial outburst, especially considering Niger and Mali had both suffered much greater military losses in recent years.

President Macron was forced into a rapid course-correction, flying to Niamey, Niger’s capital, to pay his respects to the Nigérien military dead and postponing the summit until January 2020.

However, the root causes of France’s discomfort today go back decades prior to Mr Macron’s 2017 election.

Historical controversies can be cited in relation to colonization. Sylvain Naguessan from Ivory, a political analyst, says that we are often the descendants of colonial parents and were subject to its humiliations.

During the early post-independence decades, France maintained a dense web of personal connections with African leaders and elites – dubbed “françafrique” – which too often slid into a mutual protection of vested interests, with little regard for human rights or transparency.

Paris, while not the only outside power, was no stranger to colluding and supporting dictatorial allies. However, its relations were close and unquestioned.

Change requires courage and change

Rwanda was the worst example of failure in 1994 when France refused to act as an ally to President Juvenal Habyarimana’s regime and began planning genocide.

Many governments attempted to change France’s relationship with Africa in the 1990s and gave more importance to democracy and development.

However, momentum slowed down.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, began his term in 2007 when he stated, with astonishingly little tact, “The African man hasn’t sufficiently entered into historical history”. His old friends, such as Bongo and the Bongo families who have been governing Gabon since 1967, were his favorite.

When François Hollande became president in 2012 he had no choice but to focus on security issues in the Sahel – a swathe of land south of the Sahara desert. He did not have the political will to revive reform efforts.

France now has a president who is fully conscious of the necessity for change and can use his political power and enthusiasm to tackle the challenge.

He told Ouagadougou students, Burkinabe’s capital, in 2017 that France would support a CFA reform if African countries wanted it. He invited youth, civil society and cultural leaders to the France-Africa summit this year in Montpellier. This was in addition to his usual group of presidents.

Sahel: A festering wound

But his ability to communicate clearly and challenge existing structures as well as questioning comfortable assumptions have not been appreciated by all, including those who seek change.

Furthermore, the Sahel situation has become a chronic wound.

An increasing number of West Africans feel betrayed by the French military presence.

France is still struggling to overcome the threat posed by jihadists despite a sustained and massive military effort, with over 5,000 soldiers deployed and 50 deaths.

These complex reasons can be attributed to many factors, including military, social, economic, and environmental.

A significant portion of local opinion believes that France as a Western high-tech military power should be able to solve the problem. If it is not, then they should get out.

These feelings may have driven the protesters to blockade the convoy of the French army.

These resentments were triggered by earlier events, says Mr Nguessan: “The speeches made in Dakar and Ouagadougou by Macron; the conflict in Ivory Coast; disconcerting results of our campaign against terrorists.”

“Questions regarding the currency, debt and support for local dictators, as well as ill-chosen terms.”

However, attitudes can also be influenced by social and community factors.

According to a senior Sahel military official, he believes the French are Tuareg ex-separatist rebels from northern Mali. Paris strongly denied this claim.

There are similar complexities surrounding France’s support to Ecowas West Africa, a regional body that is trying to press coup leaders from Mali or Guinea to return their country to civilian constitutional control.

A rising number of youth view the regional bloc, which is viewed as an elected presidents club by too few people. They are unwilling to condemn civilian leaders who abuse democratic rules or acknowledge the power of the popular support for reform-oriented military leaders.

France, by backing Ecowas to manage the crisis in Africa, is seen as an agent for the old guard.

Paul Melly, a consultant fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Programme in London is Paul Melly.

More on fighting Sahelian jihadists:

  • ANALYSIS West Africa must confront its terror triangle.
  • BACKROUNDER: A critical stage in the fight against Jihadism in West Africa


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