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France Rethinks, Once Again, Its Relationship with Africa

From a foreign policy reset to a scandal involving the portrayal of French mercenaries in the latest Black Panther movie, France’s involvement in its former African colonies is under an intense spotlight. Faced with waning influence in a region it once considered its backyard, plus increasingly hostile criticism of its military presence, the French state is seeking to redress its image and signal a new departure in the bumpy relationship with Africa.
© Léa Chassagne

The current problems are rooted in a long, complicated, and often violent history. The French presence in Africa dates from the invasion of the Algerian capital, Algiers, in 1830. The conquest of Algeria marked the start of a lengthy colonial expansion – alongside European powers including the United Kingdom and Germany – which became known as “the Scramble for Africa” (known in French as le partage de l’Afrique, or “sharing-out of Africa”). France’s rule over its colonies lasted until the late 1950s, when almost all of them claimed independence. The notable exception was Algeria, which fought a bloody war for independence between 1954 and 1962.

Although colonial rule officially ended in the early 1960s, France’s long-standing presence continued to shape relations with the countries it had once administered. Supposedly based on bilateral cooperation, those privileged ties were too often marked by interference from French political and business networks. Persistent scandals relating to corruption, graft, and financial misdealings further marred the relationship, which became known – and sharply criticized – as la Françafrique.

The term la France-Afrique was coined in the 1950s to describe the desire among some former African colonies to maintain close links with France. By the 1980s, however, the phrase had been elided to la Françafrique, a pejorative reference to French influence over, or interference in, those countries’ affairs. Interestingly, the lectern from which Emmanuel Macron gave his 2023 speech read Afrique-France, reversing the time-honored order of precedence.

Starting in the 1990s, successive administrations sought to establish a sounder, more equal basis of cooperation, vowing to clear away “the dregs of the past” and build new, healthy relationships. But old practices and policies have often proved hard to shake off. So in 2017, when President Emmanuel Macron announced during his first diplomatic tour of the continent that France no longer had “an African policy,” many thought they were hearing an all-too-familiar tune. Mr. Macron also inherited the country’s involvement in military operations in Mali, launched by Macron’s predecessor François Hollande in 2013 to counter the threat from jihadist movements in the Sahel region. Despite initial successes in the anti-insurgent drive, the relationship between French-led forces and several Sahelian countries worsened steadily. This was particularly the case in Mali, which saw two successive coups and the establishment of a military junta.

While seemingly anecdotal in this troubled geopolitical context, the recent release of a Hollywood movie has fueled anti-French sentiment caused a furor in France. The film, the latest installment in the “Black Panther” franchise, depicts a squad of captured soldiers in French uniforms being led, hands bound, into a United Nations meeting and forced to kneel. To the embarrassment of France’s U.N. representative, they admit to pillaging the resources of Wakanda, a fictious African country. Although the movie hit French screens back in November 2022, the outcry began some months later when a journalist posted a clip from the controversial scene on Twitter, noting that the “wicked mercenaries” had supposedly been operating in Mali and were dressed in uniforms similar to those worn by French soldiers from the Barkhane peacekeeping operation. This prompted Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu to issue a statement condemning a “false and misleading representation of our armed forces” and paying tribute to the 58 real-life French soldiers killed in Mali, where, he stressed, they were serving at that country’s behest. The incident has been described as the latest skirmish in a war of information and disinformation about the battle for political and economic influence between Russia, China, and France in the Sahel.

In an effort to counter that influence and reshape France’s image, President Macron undertook an official visit to four Central African countries in early March. Ahead of the tour, he gave a keynote speech announcing a further reduction in French military presence under a new security policy. More importantly, he called for “a new era” in which France would treat African countries as partners with whom it shared interests and responsibilities. Reactions to the speech have been mixed. While some welcomed the emphasis on partnership – a word used 20 times by Mr. Macron – others were more reserved. The spokesperson of one NGO in Burkina Faso said that a single declamation would not change his country’s fate. “We have long understood that it is up to us to fight to change our destiny. We don’t start dreaming because a French president has delivered a speech to the world and to the African continent.”

Article published in the April 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.