The world is changing and now more than ever, there is a growing number of reasons to believe that the French military presence in Africa has become under threat and unsustainable, a fact known far and wide to the extent that even French President Macron admitted it.
One of the most prominent aspects of the decline in the French role in Africa was France’s retreat and announcement of the end of Operation Barkhane, launched in 2014 to eliminate armed groups in the Sahel region in Africa and curb their influence.
This withdrawal is often seen as a shift in the relations between France and Africa, not just between France and Mali.
Operation Barkhan began with 4,300 soldiers and officers, but that number was gradually reduced until the announcement of the final retreat in August 2022.
This study seeks to shed light on the manifestations and causes of what is perceived as a decline in the French role in Africa.
In addition, the study highlights and analyzes the aspects and objectives of what can be called “a reframing” of the French military and strategic presence in Africa.
First: the main reasons for the decline of the French role
Literature regarding the French military and strategic presence in Africa explains the French retreat through several reasons, the most prominent of which will be detailed in this study before it sheds light on the prominent aspects of reframing the military presence in Africa.
1- The deterioration of the French image among the African elite: African communities have formulated negative perceptions of France as a colonial force that still has a negative impact on their countries, which explains the recent anti-French demonstrations in several Francophone countries such as Mali and the Chad republic, and why France’s relations with some African countries such as Algeria are experiencing turmoil.
Furthermore, in Africa, there is a growing feeling of French institutional arrogance, evidenced by a survey conducted this year by the “Emar” Foundation for Research and Consulting, which indicated a decline in France’s role in Africa, as well as a gradual rise in the role of its competitors.
Based on the views of opinion leaders in 12 African countries, the survey showed that France’s image is deteriorating, ranking 6th behind the United States, Germany, Canada, China, and the UK.
For its part, France contributed to the deterioration of its position and image in the eyes of African countries, for example, there has been a recent decline in the turnout of African students to French universities, as a result of the French government’s decision to increase university fees for all students from outside the European Union.
Given that France’s influence in Africa is mainly based on the education of the elites, the middle class, African government employees in French universities, and the fact that about 50% of foreign students in higher education institutions in France come from Africa, this kind of short-sighted policies harm France’s image in the long run.
2- The growing role of rival powers (China, Russia, and Turkey): Now more than ever, France is facing greater diplomatic competition from rival global powers such as China and Russia and regional powers such as India, Israel, and Turkey, which in light of the diminishing traditional influence of international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are perceived by African countries as the new development partners.
The sudden and powerfully returning Russian role is jeopardizing France’s influence in Africa, as Moscow succeeded in weakening France’s position as the historically dominant foreign power in the Central African Republic, which became a model for export.
France lost its training privileges for the army, presidential guard, and institutional security, as well as silver and gold mines security, to Russia in exchange for a share of Russia’s income and economic benefits.
Furthermore, the presence of the Russian Wagner mercenary group in various African countries, including Libya, Angola, Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa, and Congo, to train local armies and provide protection to individuals, gold, silver, and uranium mines, was at the expense of France and other countries, which allowed Russia to limit the French presence in the Central African Republic.
In addition, after the end of the “Cold War”, the transformations that occurred in the structure of the international system sparked a French-Chinese rivalry in Africa, which resulted in the emergence of rising international powers, most notably China as an economic power competing with France in Africa.
One of the main reasons for this rivalry was the geostrategic significance of Africa to the competing countries, which led them to use mechanisms and methods to achieve their objectives, resulting in some Central African countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, and the Congo, being more militarily dependent on China over the past 2 decades.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the repercussions of this competition affected France’s policy and prompted it to establish partnerships and cooperation with China in some fields in Africa.
A recent study published by Trends Center for Research and Consultation showed that Turkey’s influence has recently grown in North and West Africa on several economic, technological, and military levels in addition, its influence grew in the rest of Africa, which is considered one of the main arenas of competition between Ankara and Paris, especially given the remarkable increase in Turkey’s political and economic influence while France’s influence declines as a result of President Macron’s policies, France’s foreign policy regarding Libya and Mali, and its mismanagement of relations with Algeria, which has a prominent military role in the region, as well as the escalation of anti-French protests in Chad.
3- Traditional allies turning into rivals: Over the past 2 decades, France lost nearly half of its market share in Africa due to competition from its traditional allies.
France lost its influence in Uganda and Rwanda when the US weakened the Hutu in the Great Lakes region and supported the Tutsi tribes, as both the presidents of Uganda and Rwanda come from these tribes.
Furthermore, France is facing fierce economic competition in Africa from European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.
4- France’s preoccupation with internal problems and Europe’s efforts to defensively fortify itself after the Russian-Ukrainian war: Recently, France has been distracted from playing a more influential role in international relations by the many problems and challenges it is facing, including issues regarding integration, extremism, immigration, and the growing influence of the right wing.
In addition, France increased its defense budget to better improve Europe’s defense capabilities in the face of threats posed by Russia and took other measures that will inevitably affect its plans to restore its influence in Africa, especially in terms of aid and grants.
Secondly: Manifestations of France’s strategic and military reframing
1- Reframing the political relationship between Africa and France: On November 2017, six months after becoming president, Macron visited the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and delivered a speech heralding a “new French policy focused on African youth.”
However, it took 4 years for him to hold the new African-French Summit in Montpellier to work on reframing the relationship between Africa and France in October 2021.
Now more than ever, France realizes the importance of consolidating the development partnership with Africa, as the French military presence is not sufficient on its own, which explains why the French president uses every opportunity to stress the need for a diplomatic and developmental partnership with Africa, indicating that it would constitute a “huge qualitative leap”.
In this context, Rémy Leroux, Director General of the French Development Agency, responsible for implementing developmental projects in developing countries, especially Africa, said that development “can and must contribute strongly to finding solutions by focusing on youth, creating jobs and sustainable development.”
2- Reframing the economic relationship between France and Africa: French lawmakers ratified a bill to increase France’s foreign aid budget to 0.55% of GDP, starting in 2022, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa, in addition to merging the French Development Agency (which provides loans and grants) with France Expertise (which focuses on the development of logistical projects), to “improve France’s image in Africa” and consolidate economic relations in a manner more in line with African needs and interests.
3- Reframing military and security relations and presence: Given the ongoing transformations in international relations, especially the fierce competition for influence in Africa, where France once had a distinguished presence thanks to the long economic and financial relations as well as various common strategic interests between France and the French-speaking African countries, reshaping the map of the French military presence in Africa is now considered a strategic necessity.
The reframing strategy can be summarized as preserving the traditional military bases and changing the fulcrum of confrontation with terrorist organizations in the Sahel region.
Furthermore, France managed to maintain its military presence in its traditional bases in the rest of Africa, including 350 soldiers in Dakar, 350-400 soldiers in Ouagadougou, 900 soldiers in Abidjan, and 350 in Libreville.
In addition, the French military has two permanent military bases in the Sahel region, one of which is in the capital of Niger, Niamey, which includes the main air base for the Barkhane Operation, equipped with 6 Reaper drones, 7 Mirage fighters, a combat unit that complements the French military unit at the base located near the area known as the “Three Borders” (Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger).
Regarding the matter of changing the fulcrum of confrontation with terrorist organizations in the Sahel region and working from the back lines, General Laurent Michon, commander of Operation Barkhane, which ended in Mali, stated that the French army intends to change the way it operates in the Sahel region after its withdrawal from Mali, explaining that the French military is now intervening to provide support rather than replace the local armies in the Sahel, as France is redefining its military and security objectives to increase effectiveness while reducing costs.
Given that Niger is the only country in the three-border region that has a democratic regime that was not a result of coups, France chose Niger as the new fulcrum for confrontation with terrorist organizations as well as Russian expansion in the Sahel.
Despite the complete withdrawal from Mali, the French General Staff said that there are around 3,000 French troops still in the Sahel region, which will operate from Niger and Chad to provide support for the military, operational and logistic partnerships between France and the Sahel region.
“The transformation occurring in the Barkhane Operation is a lot deeper than the french withdrawal from Mali,” said French General Staff spokesman Colonel Pierre Gaudillière.
For his part, Colonel Hubert Beaudouin, Deputy Chief of the Barkhane Operation, summed up the new French strategy by saying, “we are experiencing a paradigm shift, and with a more discreet partnership, a large and highly visible deployment is no longer appropriate with the times, and from now on, the French army will continue to provide support, but from the back lines”.
Last July on France’s National Day, in his speech to the armed forces in the garden of the Ministry of Defense, President Macron stressed that France’s presence in Africa will continue, but it will change, indicating that the French forces will not operate on the frontlines, to avoid provoking hostile feelings, as was the case in Mali or Burkina Faso and others, where French forces were regarded as responsible for the failure of existing governments on multiple levels.
Therefore, it is necessary to rely on “smaller forces that are less vulnerable to danger” while working to “build a stronger long-term relationship with African armies” by focusing on training African forces, whether in Africa or France, i.e. preparing African armies for war rather than fighting the war for them.
4- Forming new alliances to aid in repositioning: The importance of Sub-Saharan Africa is growing in current international relations and competitions, for multiple reasons, most prominent of which is the promising economic potential, especially in the energy production sectors, and the pristine and enormous opportunities for infrastructure developers, as well as the fact that the region is rich in natural resources and is considered a traditional arena for the influence of various international powers, highlighting the importance of the French-Emirati cooperation in Africa, which France intends to develop, evidenced by President Macron’s recent Gulf tour.
France also seeks to form a new military alliance with Brazil to help reposition its presence in Africa, evident by the joint naval exercises conducted by the Brazilian frigate Uniao and the French Falcon 50M off the coast of Senegal, which should improve the two sides interoperability and boost regional security.
5- Focusing on East Africa: Macron’s France is reaching out to new partners in East Africa, including countries outside the scope of its old colonies, to get access to new markets and diversify its resources, to replace its losses in West Africa to China, Russia, the United States, and other countries such as Turkey.
On the other hand, France is focusing militarily on eastern Africa, as part of the European framework, as reports confirmed the European Union’s desire to provide more support to African countries such as Mozambique by doubling the amount of financial support provided to the African military mission in Maputo 5 times.
6 Reusing the Francophone card: The French language is still one of the key factors in France’s influence over the French-speaking African countries, as well as the large African communities in France, which makes African relations with France a very complex issue.
Reframing the French presence in Africa can be summed in the points President Macron outlined during his last visit to West Africa last July:
– Redeployment in the Sahel region, Lake Chad, and the Gulf of Guinea.
– Fighting terrorism at the roots through defense and security, diplomacy, and development.
Furthermore, President Macron stipulated that African countries wishing to receive France’s military, diplomatic, and security support must submit a “clear and explicit request”, so that France can respond to the request and help in matters limited to military training, providing equipment and support to African armies and increasing their capabilities and efficiency.
» By: Dr. Wael Saleh, Ph.D. (Senior Fellow – Trends Research & Advisory)