Paris Perspective #40: The collapse of French influence in West Africa - Georja Calvin-Smith

By David Coffey - RFI
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This edition of Paris Perspective looks at the concept of Françafrique and the collapse of French influence in its former colonies. What have been the catalysts for the successive coup d'états in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger and Gabon over the past three years?

The domino effect of Sahel states falling into the hands of military juntas over the past three years has been particularly alarming to behold from a French perspective.

The takeovers have essentially followed the same playbook: France is condemned as an economic predator, military cooperation in the fight against jihadists is suspended, defence agreements with Paris are ripped up and French media outlets such as RFI and France 24 are shut down.

Almost identical scenes have played out at French embassies and military bases, with protesters denouncing French neo-colonialism and calling for the withdrawal of French troops. Russian flags have been conspicuous in the crowds.

Paris insists that the old Françafrique method of meddling in African affairs "died a long time ago". If this is true, where is the anti-French sentiment stemming from?

The legacy of "Françafrique"

To understand the present, one must look at the direct influence of France's colonial administration across African countries, which metamorphosed into an infamous political old-boys club in the wake of independence in the 1950s and 60s.

Georja Calvin-Smith, producer and presenter of France 24's flagship "Eye on Africa" political magazine is quick to agree that the concept of Françafrique in the immediate post-colonial period was essentially born out of the former rulers' "right of entitlement". 

"I think Françafrique is best characterised from an African perspective as 'being done dirty' – being taken advantage of. That doesn't necessarily mean that there weren't African actors within the relationship that didn't benefit from it, but they were generally at the top of the social hierarchy...depending on what country you're talking about," she tells Paris Perspective.

Calvin-Smith underlines that post-colonial movers and shakers were essentially intermediaries between Paris and African capitals, either helping to secure permanent mining rights at rock bottom prices or adjusting policy ambitions for the benefit of France.

"They're seen as working with the former colonial power," she explains "to the disadvantage of the indigenous population."

"Ultimately, for decades, French and European economies have been propped up by the use and reliance on African resources," coupled with amenable African leaders she says.

Although French President Emmanuel Macron has been one of the most progressive French leaders in terms of trying to address some of the resentment over the legacy of Françafrique, Calvin-Smith says it doesn't matter: "You can say it doesn't exist, but those relationships still exist."

Rejection of 'paternalism'

From the outset, Françafrique defined the post-colonial era. African resources flowed into French coffers, in exchange for a degree of political and financial stability in the fledgling independent nations.  

"And that is the problem," the France 24 journalist continues, "because as much as we're trying to make it a binary situation about who got the most out of it ... there have been some developments in post-colonialism that can be measured as being better than others.

"That's the whole reason there is resentment. As much as we talk about political, sociological, even economic models, we're forgetting that there are real people at the heart of this."

If people feel belittled, side-lined and undermined by a paternalistic state, then this will likely shape their opinion. 

The forgotten generations

However, France's role in "guiding" African states through the independence years appears to have been rejected outright by a generation who are coming to terms with new political realities and are feeling neglected.

A new generation of Africans has emerged, one with access to information – and disinformation – in equal measure.

"By ignoring young people, if you ignore investment, and the intention to create the institutions needed to have a functioning society, then – by definition – you're ignoring the young people along with everybody else," Calvin-Smith points out.

It's also important to remember that the coups across West Africa are not all the same, she says, but rather shaped by different political and economic contexts.

"It doesn't mean that the resentment of those populations can't be exploited by actors who are taking advantage of this very valid resentment about France – or very valid concerns about security, or lack of opportunity – for their own political gains or just to take power.

"When we look at a lot of these countries – they're some of the poorest in the world – but also the richest in terms of resources. That disparity does not go unnoticed," she insists. 

ECOWAS and the putschist playbook

One common point among the coup d'états is that "none of these countries has returned to democracy since 2020," Calvin-Smith wryly points out.

A pattern has emerged, she observes: "Takeover quickly, check your back. When it comes to the international community, engage in some chats. Say that you will hold an election and then postpone the election".

For its part, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has responded invariably with sanctions, exclusion or in some cases, a threat of military intervention to ensure a return to democratic process.

Whatever the political outcome and transition of former French colonies back to democracy, France has seen its influence and credibility seriously damaged by the seismic events that have swept its traditional stomping ground over the past three years.

And all on President Macron's watch.
Can we expect France and French diplomacy to regain its foothold in Francophone Africa? Will the reach of French influence in former colonies ever be the same? 

For Georja Calvin-Smith, it's "no". This page of history has definitively been turned.

Watch the full video here.

Written, produced and presented by David Coffey.

Recorded by Hadrien Touraud and Erwan Rome
Georja Calvin-Smith is the producer and presenter of France 24's political magazine "Eye on Africa".