Françafrique: A Resurgent France Has a Responsibility to Keep House in Its Former Colonial Neighborhood

French troops arrive in Mali. Photo: Richardson

French troops arrive in Mali.
Photo: Richardson

In the mid twentieth century, France’s colonial possessions in Africa encompassed enormous swathes of land, from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in the northwest to Madagascar in the southeast. Fifty-some years after the final dissolution of the French empire, France’s recent military incursions on the continent are sparking speculation of a French attempt to resurrect its empire.

Of course, nominal independence does not necessarily translate into actual independence. Relations between Africans and Europeans in ex-colonies exist in much of the same order they used to: Europeans are given priority access and opportunity, which they extend – when it benefits them – to “native” elites who are willing to cooperate with them. Everyone else is largely forgotten or taken advantage of. The difference now is optics, with foreign corporations maintaining more physical distance from the land they pillage, and perhaps more genuine fraternité between the African elites and their European counterparts.

While the rest of the ex-imperial world seems determined to avoid deploying their armed forces in their former colonies — just imagine Great Britain sending troops into Tahrir Square— France’s military power is almost as present in Africa as it was during colonial days. Recent French military deployment thus bears examination not only for what it illuminates about France’s relations with its former colonies, but also what it can tell us about how France sees itself compared to the rest of the West.

The aughts were dominated by American military engagement. Chastisement abounded, from the near-global consensus that America had overstepped its bounds by invading Iraq, to the American perspective that the rest of the world was shirking its responsibility to help combat terrorism. The French were recipients of special ire, with some in America going so far as to call French fries “freedom fries” for not supporting the Iraq War.

After whatever luster the Iraq War ever had faded from the public consciousness, no country wanted to look too eager to go to war over another nation’s foibles. But it was around this time that the French, perhaps feeling the perception of them as effete pacifists inoculated them from accusations of trigger-happiness, began ramping up their military involvement in Africa.

This first flicker of French assertiveness came during the Libyan intervention, when the leading French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy was what The Guardian called “the driving force behind [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy’s ‘diplomatic blitzkrieg’ to secure international approval for military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi.” Sarkozy was subsequently the first to institute sanctions against the Gaddafi regime, to call for his removal, and to recognize the oppositional NTC as the legitimate government of Libya.

Then came Mali. Mali, formerly French Sudan, had been reeling from jihadist assaults in its northern territories since the spring of 2012, when an unholy alliance of Taureg rebels and Islamist extremists from the likes of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine sent Mali’s president Amadou Toumani Touré into hiding and took control of the northern cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. Islamists there imposed sharia law, cutting thieves hands off and flogging women whose dress they found improper.

France’s military across its African ex-colonies sprang to life in response. Special forces stationed in Burkina Faso launched initial strikes against the jihadists, mobilized warplanes in Chad, came filtering into the country from Senegal, and rolling over the border in armored units from the Ivory Coast. Their targeted strikes kept the extremists on their heels in the north, but when it looked like the Malian capital of Bamako might fall, Paris dispatched 4,000 troops to Mali. Their attacks routed the jihadists, to the point where only a few pockets of militants now linger in the north.

The success in Mali primed France for another intervention in another former African colony. The Central African Republic (CAR), which was formerly a part of French Equatorial Africa, has been ravaged for over a year by sectarian violence. In March of 2013, Muslim rebels wrested control from the majority Christian government, ousting President François Bozizé and setting off the bloody conflict. Muslims have fled to the country’s northeast, resulting in a state divided along religious lines and threatening partition. Thousands have been driven from their homes, and over a million are dependent on external aid.

French President François Hollande made the CAR crisis a focal point of his address to the United Nations in September, where he called upon the Security Council to “grant logistical and financial means to an African force whose first mission would be to restore stability.” When that commitment did not come, and violence took a turn for the worse, Hollande sent 1,600 French troops to the CAR’s capital of Bangui, in an operation called “Sangaris” after a regional butterfly with a short lifespan.

But because France has been willing to unilaterally deploy military force in Africa does not mean it is striving to regain its former hegemonic or imperial status. France has had a special relationship with Africa since its colonial days — a concept manifest in ideas like “Françafrique,” a term President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire used in 1955 to describe the close ties his countries would maintain with France post-independence.

French paternalistic intervention does not hold outside the historical context of Franco-African relations. While France advocated forcefully for a kinetic response to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s usage of the same sort of chemical weapons first wrecked upon the world on the fields of Ypres, it was not willing to act unilaterally when Britain and the United States hesitated to enforce their own “red line” against the use of these weapons.

Africa’s relative isolation plays an important role in this French free reign. “There is lack of interest,” an anonymous Western diplomat told Reuters. “[CAR] is not strategic. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and a mission of 10,000 men costs $800 million.” In contrast to the geopolitical tinderbox of Syria, events in Bangui seem of little concern Western citizens weary of war.

The same sense of remoteness does not apply in France. “The French public is accustomed to African operations,” French foreign policy analyst Harold Hyman told NPR. “Places like Bangui, Bamako, Dakar; they’re totally aware of these places and a large proportion of people have been to at least one of them.” France has a much more emotional relationship with its former colonies than Britain does: in polite quarters of Paris, it is not unusual for someone to say after a few glasses of wine that Algeria should still be (or still is) a part of France. It was not until 1999 that the French Assemblée Nationale passed a law allowing usage of the term “Algerian War,” which had previously been taboo, because to call it a war would have confirmed Algeria as an independent entity that could wage one. A small bookstore on Saint Germain des Pres’ quiet rue du Cherche-Midi houses a shelves of rare old travel books on the French colonies, including one I saw in the window this fall called “Voyage aux Colonies” — a 1920s children’s book about what life was like in French Africa. The bookstore is always full.

But perhaps a more existential reason for France to assert itself than nostalgia is to fulfill that endemic French determination to be both swaggering and sensitive — to wear your skinny jeans and throw your Molotov cocktails, too. It is a juxtaposition that gets the French labeled passionate yet competent, relaxed yet rigorous, liberal yet refined. This verve is far from limited to far-flung military expeditions. In a particularly Gallic display of chest-thumping, France recently crushed three tons of smuggled ivory in a public ceremony at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in an attempt to detour poachers, traffickers, and buyers, and, in Hollande’s words, “to show the French government’s solidarity to African countries.” An idealized France is a moralist country proud to have the resources to put that moralism into practice.

It’s nonsense to pretend that African forces can contend with terrorist warlord gangs from across Africa and the Middle East launching attacks from vast swaths of African jungle. Thanks to the colonialism’s legacy, most African governments cannot control violence within their borders. And is it really paternalism if a country with a superior military intervenes to stop this violence? What would the alternative be— for France to forgo its drones, fighter jets, and armored vehicles and come in with rusty Kalisnikovs so the optics of a former colonial power retaining that power aren’t so pronounced? That would have ended in gratuitous bloodshed and humiliation, neither of which France, and its history of two world wars and Vichy occupation, is eager to again endure.

Françafrique isn’t the sort of paternalism that can be wiped out with nominal independence. It is the sort that can sometimes co-exist, albeit uneasily, with other evolving norms, like self-determination and equality between the developed world and the developing. Former French colonies in Africa have shrugged off their ex-colonial bosses, but the systemic disenfranchisement of the colonial era has rendered them continually dependent on French intervention when crisis reach a tipping point. Because it’s the least that France can do to tamp down the violence in its former colonies doesn’t mean France shouldn’t do so. And just because French troops rolling into Bamako bears echoes of colonialism doesn’t make it a colonial – a negative and anachronistic – move in itself.

Elizabeth Nicholas is a freelance writer and reporter. She was previously the Managing Editor of the Aspen Institute’s magazine and an editorial assistant at Vanity Fair. She covers everything from foreign policy to fashion, and is particularly interested in the vestiges of colonialism in contemporary society. Follow her on twitter @eliznicholas.

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