The detention of Gabon’s long-time leader in the latest African coup has sparked significant changes in France’s traditional approach towards its former colonies. While France condemned the takeover, its response was notably subdued, signaling a departure from the postcolonial tradition of “Françafrique” that characterized its relationship with African nations for decades.
Side note: Françafrique is an unflattering term that refers to France’s longstanding political, economic, and military influence over its former African colonies.
France’s Influence in Africa: The End of an Era
In the past, France often acted as the guardian of stability in its former colonies, intervening militarily when necessary to protect its interests and influence. However, as Africa gains greater self-confidence and diversifies its global partnerships, the era of France as Africa’s “gendarme” (armed policeman) appears to be waning.
“In the old days of ‘Françafrique,’ this coup would not have happened, and if it did, it would have been quickly reversed,” remarked Peter Pham, a former US envoy for Africa’s Sahel region, highlighting the contrast with France’s muted response to the Gabon coup.
Anti-French Sentiment on the Rise
Recent years have witnessed a common thread linking coups in several African countries, all of which were once French colonies. Gabon, in particular, maintained warm relations with France, with President Ali Bongo Ondimba meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in June in Paris.
🔴NIGER 🇳🇪| More than 72h of continuous demonstrations by #Nigeriens for the departure of french troops from 🇳🇪. The populations remain engaged & each day that passes strengthens the anti-#France sentiment, whose bravado attitude is seen as an attack on the sovereignty of #Niger. pic.twitter.com/WnrHoXth02
— Nanana365 (@nanana365media) September 4, 2023
However, anti-French sentiment has been on the rise elsewhere. Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group has forged alliances in places like the Central African Republic, while China’s economic influence in Africa has surpassed that of France. Furthermore, some former French colonies have even opted to join the Commonwealth despite having no historical ties to British rule.
France’s Shifting Approach
France’s approach to its former colonies has shifted noticeably. President Macron withdrew French troops from Mali and Burkina Faso following tensions with ruling juntas in the aftermath of a 2020 coup, marking a departure from the past when French forces would often remain involved. France also suspended military operations with the Central African Republic, accusing the government of disseminating a “massive” anti-French disinformation campaign.
In a recent speech to French diplomats, Macron decried the prevalence of coups in the Sahel region but refrained from launching new military operations, as his predecessors had done. As the first French leader born after the colonial era, Macron’s presidency has emphasized the importance of partnership with Africa. However, some lingering resentment remains among African nations.
A Closer Look at Gabon
“France stirs up conflict in the Central African Republic and puts pressure on authorities to not pursue real development policies,” said Anicet L’appel, publisher of the local Adrenaline Info, reflecting a growing disillusionment with France’s role.
Why Gabon coup is significant? Gabon is 1 of largest oil AND uranium exporters and its leaders deep inside France's pocket for decades.
Decolonization of Africa progressing briskly pic.twitter.com/otzPBr9QcR
— Carl Zha (@CarlZha) August 31, 2023
Gabon’s longstanding ties to France, embodied by the Bongo family’s rule and intertwined with corruption and French business interests, are emblematic of Françafrique. Notably, Macron has not made any public statements regarding Gabon since the coup.
Leadership Longevity in Former Colonies
Several long-serving leaders of former French colonies still stand, collectively amassing over a century in office. While France continues to consider itself Africa’s primary partner, many former colonies increasingly pursue their interests elsewhere.
Seidik Abba, a Nigerien researcher, noted that France has failed to recognize Africa’s evolving landscape, where Paris is no longer the sole global power available to African nations. The sentiment among diplomats and officials that they have exclusive relations with African countries is becoming outdated.
The Challenge of Changing Institutional Remnants
However, many French connections persist, including the presence of French troops in several African countries and the use of the CFA franc currency, which has been controversial. François Borrel, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Survie, asserted that true change in Françafrique requires addressing these institutional remnants.
— Chibuzor Oforkansi (@UzorOkasi) September 3, 2023
France maintains over 5,500 troops across six African countries, including permanent bases in Gabon, Djibouti, Senegal, and Ivory Coast. Additionally, it has around 2,500 soldiers involved in its military operation in Chad and Niger. Despite recent political upheaval, French troops remain in Niger, underscoring the complexities of France’s military presence.
Changing Sentiments in Mali
In Mali, disillusionment with the French troop presence grew after it failed to eliminate Islamic extremist fighters. Pro-Russia groups on social media capitalized on this discontent. The changing sentiments also reflect a generational shift, as most Africans today are too young to have experienced French colonial rule.
A significant aspect of the evolving relationship is cultural in a sense. France no longer holds the same appeal it once did. Shrinking French funding, reduced military presence, and stricter visa regulations have tarnished France’s image as “the land of prestige.”
As Africa asserts its independence and diversifies its global partnerships, France’s role in the continent is evolving. Africans themselves are increasingly dictating the terms of this transformation, signaling that the era of Françafrique may indeed be coming to an end.
Wrap-Up and Final Thoughts
The detention of Gabon’s leader and France’s subdued response have revealed a significant shift in the dynamics of the relationship between France and its former African colonies. While France’s historical role as a dominant influence in Africa is waning, the continent is embracing a new era of self-confidence and diversified global partnerships.
Moreover, France’s evolving approach and the changing sentiments of African nations highlight the need for a redefined partnership based on mutual respect and shared interests rather than the paternalistic influence of the past as Africa continues to assert its independence and explore alternative global alliances, the traditional concept of Françafrique faces unprecedented challenges, ultimately reshaping the future of Franco-African relations.