Francafrique: France’s Hidden Empire

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African protesters against Francafrique (Image Credit: Lefigaro)

“Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century.”

This bold assertion by the former French President Francois Mitterrand in 1957 encapsulates a profound awareness that has pervaded the corridors of power in France since the late 1950s. From Charles De Gaulle to the present-day leadership, the understanding that Africa, with its abundant resources and strategic geopolitical positioning, is critical to maintaining France’s global influence has shaped the nation’s foreign policy.

This perspective was particularly important in the era following the Second World War. As France was grappling with the repercussions of its brutal and unsuccessful attempts to quell independence movements in Indochina and Algeria, it found itself under significant international pressure. With Britain taking a different stance by granting independence to many of its colonies, France’s insistence on maintaining imperial possessions became increasingly untenable.

In response, when De Gaulle reassumed power in the aftermath of the Algerian Crisis in 1958, he embarked on a path of granting independence to countries within the French empire. Nevertheless, his vision for France was one of grandeur – a key global player acting as a counterbalance to US-UK and Soviet hegemony. To achieve this ambition, it was clear that France needed to perpetuate its exploitative relationship with Africa, albeit under a different guise. Under the umbrella term of a ‘special trading partnership,’ France aimed to retain economic advantages in these regions, despite granting them political independence. The birth of a neocolonial framework thus ensued, providing these countries with nominal independence while permitting French businesses unfettered access to their resources.

Jacques Foccart, a former resistance member turned politician, was appointed as the secretary-general of African affairs under De Gaulle’s administration. Foccart became instrumental in shaping and implementing the new paradigm, which revolved around three critical pillars: co-operation agreements, the CFA franc, and a network of personal relationships.

The initial pillar of the Francafrique framework rests on a series of cooperation agreements, ostensibly designed to foster bilateral ties but in actuality, intended to ensure France’s continuing influence over its former colonies. These agreements were often arrived at under significant pressure, with newly-independent nations feeling coerced into acquiescence. The experience of Guinea under President Sekou Touré’s leadership provides a stark illustration of the high stakes at play. Touré’s refusal to accede to France’s cooperation agreement in 1958 by stating that he would rather be ‘poor in freedom’ then ‘rich in slavery’ led to a harsh retaliatory response. France withdrew abruptly, adopting a “scorched earth” policy that included taking everything movable from the administrative infrastructure to the contents of public libraries. They even printed fake Guinean banknotes and flooded the country with it to cause hyper-inflation and crash the economy. This retaliation served as a potent warning to other African nations contemplating a similar path, and many subsequently yielded to France’s demands, signing cooperation agreements to avoid Guinea’s fate. These agreements encompassed various spheres, including economic, civil, and military dimensions. Economically, they granted France privileged access to natural resources and enabled French companies to operate with few restrictions. Civil agreements covered areas like education and professional training, fostering a form of cultural and linguistic continuity that underpinned France’s influence. Perhaps most significantly, these agreements provided a framework for France to maintain military bases and troops in several African countries, including Chad, Djibouti, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Senegal. This military presence not only underscored France’s commitment to maintaining its strategic interests in these regions but also established a structure allowing France to intervene militarily if these interests were threatened. Notably, France has invoked these agreements to invade Africa over 122 times since the end of the second world war, intervening to protect French interests or secure favored leaders.

The second pillar, the CFA franc, a common currency established in 14 African countries, ostensibly provided monetary stability. However, the truth is more complex. With each of the two African central banks required to keep 65% of its foreign reserves with the French Treasury, France acquired substantial influence over the money supply of the CFA franc and the decision-making processes of these African central banks. This system has been leveraged to serve French economic interests. The parity of the CFA franc to the euro has allowed French companies to buy African resources without foreign currency exchange risks. Furthermore, the convertibility of the CFA franc to the euro, which is guaranteed by the French Treasury, acts as a shield for French investments in the region, minimizing risks of monetary fluctuations.

More importantly, the fixed exchange rate and the pooled reserves mean that the 14 African states in the CFA franc zone are directly subject to Eurozone dynamics in terms of monetary policy. This becomes problematic when considering that European and African nations have fundamentally different domestic economic priorities. While the European Central Bank’s primary mission is to control inflation in the EU, most African states are driven by the pressing need to create jobs and invest in infrastructures, policies that often drive inflation. Therefore, the convertibility of the CFA franc, while appearing to provide stability, is actually harmful to the long-term economic development of these African nations.

The third pillar of Francafrique involves a tangled web of personal networks that spans continents, connecting French businessmen and politicians with African leaders. The activities of these networks typically evade parliamentary oversight or scrutiny, leading to blurred lines between state, party, and personal interests. This opacity has fostered rampant corruption and state racketeering, with politicians and officials engaging in business activities that raise questions of propriety. Furthermore, these networks have facilitated covert fund channelling from the cooperation budget and strategic state-owned entities, such as Elf, a French oil company, into the coffers of major French political parties and African elites.

Cracks in the system are already beginning to appear, since 2022 numerous anti-French protests have occurred all over Africa, from Mali to chad to the Democratic republic of Congo. Protestors have chanted slogans asking France to ‘get out’ of their respective countries and have even resorted to looting and vandalizing French owned businesses. French troops were asked to leave the country by Burkina Faso, its former colony. It appears France’s hidden empire is slowly crumbling.

Written by Dev Karpe

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