FRENCH ENGAGEMENT WITH SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA
Submission to the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee, April 2020
After decolonisation in the late 50s/early 60s, French policy towards sub-Saharan Africa was focused on its former colonies and the core feature of French Africa policy was unilateralism. This remained the case throughout the Cold War years. In the military sphere this was possible thanks to France’s prepositioned troops based in Africa and its readiness to intervene (there were some 30 or so French military interventions in Africa over the three decades after political independence), coupled with bilateral military assistance and defence agreements signed with a number of former French colonies in Africa that provided the legal basis for intervention. Thus, from the 1960s onwards France gained the reputation of the ‘gendarme of Africa’ in what it considered, and most accepted, was its Francophone pré carré (‘backyard’). Beyond the military sphere, France maintained close ties with its former colonies through a variety of mechanisms. French aid policy was focused on Francophone Africa, with some two-thirds of aid going to France's former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. The Franc Zone pegged the currencies of its former colonies in Africa to the French franc at a fixed rate and obliged the countries using the CFA franc to deposit two thirds of their foreign currency reserves with the Banque de France in Paris. (This peg still exists today, with the CFA Franc pegged to the euro and underwitten by the French government). There was a Ministry of Co-operation, successor to the colonial Ministry for Overseas France, whose minister had a seat on the Council of Ministers; this ministry was effectively a ministry for Francophone sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to its military cooperation accords, France also signed cultural and technical and co-operation accords with most of its former colonies at independence and within the context of these sent large numbers of coopérants as government advisers, development specialists, teachers, university lecturers and educational advisers out to former French Africa. Over half of these coopérants worked in education, thus helping to maintain, and indeed reinforce, the position of the French language and the French cultural presence on the continent (this is reinforced by the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, roughly equivalent to the British Commonwealth, although its membership now extends well beyond France's former colonies in Africa). This dense network of links served to maintain the dependency of Francophone Africa on France. Finally, with the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958, Africa policy became the domaine réservé of the President, which meant that decision making concerning Francophone Africa largely bypassed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; instead, Africa policy was largely made by the President in close consultation with his ‘Africa cell’ of special advisers and was not subject to the normal processes of parliamentary scrutiny. This personalization of policymaking was an important vehicle for the cultivation of regional friends among Africa’s political leaders, a practice that was facilitated by the fact that many of the leaders of the newly independent states of Francophone Africa had been elected members of the National Assembly in Paris under the Fourth Republic.
This propensity for unilateral action was accompanied by the practice of self-legitimation. In other words, interventions were conducted according to French interpretations of security: to defend imperilled African heads of state at the discretion of the French president against any threat to the regime. At the same time, French unilateral interventions were generally underpinned by an assumption that France, and in particular the French Foreign Legion and Troupes de la Marine – the two branches of the French army largely responsible for French military operations on the continent throughout the colonial period and up until the professionalisation of the army in 1996 – knew ‘their’ Africa. The French military had played a key role in the colonisation of sub-Saharan Africa, with army officers often developing a detailed knowledge of the societies with which they came into contact. This ‘privileged knowledge’ of its African pré carré served to justify France’s presence and military actions on the continent and continued to underpin French interventionism in the post-colonial period. Finally, and again in the military sphere, unilateralism was associated with the practice of substitution for Francophone African armies by the French military. Military technical assistants were deployed throughout Francophone Africa and French soldiers were integrated into African armies; French troops would undertake interventions without the help of the military of the host country; French officers often played a highly directive role vis-à-vis African armies in any conflict; and French military equipment was supplied. Ultimately, much of the support was destined, intentionally or otherwise, to maintain dependency on the French military.
The end of the Cold War meant that France could no longer present itself as the key guarantor of Western strategic interests in its former colonies, maintaining them in the Western 'camp' and preserving them from Soviet incursion. (This role for France was made possible by the fact that the US, for which sub-Saharan Africa was not a strategic priority, was happy to 'franchise out' sub-Saharan African security to France during the Cold War). The end of the Cold War, then the role played by France in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the Rwandan genocide, together with the growing economic crisis in Francophone Africa, forced a major rethink of French Africa policy in the 1990s. This was especially noticeable in the military sphere, as France had been the key international supporter of the Habyarimana regime that was responsible for the genocide. (As part of Operation Noroît (1990–94), French troops had provided advice, training and arms to the Rwandan army). France's Operation Turquoise, launched after the genocide and presented as a humanitarian mission, was widely criticised at the time, as many suspected that the Operation was less about saving lives than providing Hutus, many of whom had been involved in the genocide, with an escape route into eastern Zaire. These actions provoked widespread domestic, regional and international criticism and led to renewed accusations of French neocolonialism. It was clear that the continuation of France’s traditional unilateralist policies towards Africa was no longer tenable.
As a result, 'multilateralism' became the new watchword of French Africa policy. This was especially noticeable in the military field, where the multilateral approach involved the recognition of the need to respect mandates and rules of engagement as prescribed by international, usually UN Security Council (UNSC), mandates and the move away from substitution for African forces towards training of African forces and support for ‘African solutions to African problems’. Beyond the military field, the Ministry of Cooperation was merged with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the whole of Africa became eligible for French aid, as part of what was called the Zone de Solidarité Prioritaire, even if in practice French aid continued to be channelled largely to the Francophone countries in sub-Saharan Africa. There was also a public commitment by then president, François Mitterrand, to move away from the previous policy of effectively unconditional aid to pro-French African leaders and towards a policy of making future aid conditional on progress towards democratisation (although here again implementation of the new policy was extremely patchy and much of French aid continued to be focused on Francophone Africa, which by now included not just the former French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, but also the former Belgian colonies, regardless of their progress on political reform).
There have, in effect, been two dimensions to French multilateralism as practised in sub-Saharan Africa: 'Europeanisation' and 'Africanisation'. With regard to the former, ‘Europeanisation’ was supposed to mean involving the European Union (EU) in the design and implementation of Africa policy. From a French perspective, this had the advantage of sharing both the costs and risks of its Africa policy with other EU member states and of helping France to avoid the charge of neocolonialism, in that an EU military operation does not have the same direct association with France. In this context successive French governments have, since the turn of the century, argued that Europe, because of its proximity to the continent, has key security concerns in Africa, arising from the threat of terrorism, international crime, maritime piracy, migration pressures, weapons proliferation, instability and conflict.
In the military sphere, President Chirac (2002–07) made efforts to Europeanize military missions to Africa and his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy (2007–12), oversaw the ‘Europeanisation’ of France's programme for training African troops in peacekeeping; thus, the RECAMP programme (Reinforcement of African Peacekeeping Capacity) was renamed EURORECAMP in 2008 and placed under the European Council. This coincided with the EU developing its European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), for which Africa rapidly emerged as a key theatre. As a result, during the Chirac and Sarkozy presidencies there were three French-inspired ESDP military missions on African soil: Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from June to September 2003; EUFOR, also in the DRC, from July to November 2006; and EUFOR Chad/CAR, from January 2008 to March 2009. Following the Saint-Malo (1998) and Cahors (2001) Franco-British summits, the British and French governments played the key role in gaining EU member states’ support for these missions (see below for more on this). They also played a key role in the EU’s adoption, for the first time, of an Africa strategy in 2005. However, having been persuaded to take part in French-led military operations on the continent under the ESDP from 2003–09, EU member states (particularly, but not only, Germany) became sceptical about the value of direct EU military interventions in African crises. Wary of France seeking to implicate them in ‘its’ African problems, there were no further deployments of combat troops from other EU member states to Africa after EUFOR Chad/CAR and France was forced to rethink its ‘Europeanisation’ strategy for military interventions on the continent.
The shift in French policy from a bilateral to a multilateral approach was not limited to the security field, but also extended to the field of development aid, with an increased proportion of French aid now channelled through the EU. By 2016 some 40% of the total aid budget was multilateral aid and 57% of the latter was channelled via the EU. France also drew up a ‘Multilateral Aid Strategy 2017–2021’, in response to recommendations contained in the 2013 OECD Development Assistance Committee peer review of French aid. From the French perspective, the channelling of a significant proportion of its aid through multilateral organisations has several advantages. It provides the opportunity for France, as a significant donor, to play a leading role in international debates on development. This enables France both to influence policy and to leverage further resources from both bilateral and multilateral donors in support of its policy priorities. It also means that France can exercise influence in countries and regions beyond the reach of its bilateral assistance. These advantages can be seen at the level of the EU, where France, as the second largest contributor to the European Development Fund, has been able to promote convergence with its priority geographic areas for development assistance in sub-Saharan Africa and its priority sectors for intervention, such as health, education and economic infrastructure. This has also enabled France, with its long history of involvement in the continent, to remain at the centre of EU policymaking on Africa.
The second strand in the French shift to multilateralism is 'Africanisation'. Core to the policy of Africanisation has been the commitment to the forging of a new Franco-African partnership. Like ‘Europeanisation’, the forging of a new partnership with Africa to promote ‘African solutions to African problems’, is about sharing the risks and costs of French military interventions on the continent. This should mean ensuring that any military intervention has been requested by the government of the country, has received international approval from the UN and has been formally endorsed by the AU or the relevant African sub-regional organisation. This is now usually, but not always, the case (e.g. intervention in Chad in 2019). The policy of Africanisation has also given renewed impetus to the French effort to develop a policy for the whole of Africa, in contrast to the traditional focus of Africa policy on Francophone Africa.
The key geostrategic importance attached to sub-Saharan Africa by successive French governments is the most obvious and striking contrast to the British approach. This can be attributed to French economic interests (though these are sometimes overplayed, as Africa represents a relatively small proportion of total French overseas trade), to the large number of French nationals living in sub-Saharan Africa and, perhaps most importantly (alongside its independent nuclear deterrent), to the need to justify France's permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In contrast, sub-Saharan Africa, for at least the first fifty years after African independence, was a very low strategic priority for the UK government. British Africa policy from independence until the early 2000s was characterised by one commentator as one of 'benign neglect'. Insofar as Britain maintained an interest in sub-Saharan Africa, it was largely confined to South Africa and Nigeria (of economic interest due to the size of their markets) and Kenya (which allows the British army to undertake training under a long-standing defence training agreement); the British military intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 was very much the exception that proved the rule. British policymakers would no doubt put a more positive gloss on British Africa policy, claiming that when Britain left, it genuinely did decolonise and withdrew from Africa, whereas France continued to adopt a paternalistic approach to Africa, redolent of the colonial period. This approach maintained African dependency on France. Whichever view one takes, the fact remains that France and the UK have not traditionally attached the same strategic importance to sub-Saharan Africa.
As indicated above, France's 'hands-on' approach to sub-Saharan Africa marks a clear contrast to the British 'hands-off' approach. Traditionally, the two countries have not cooperated on African affairs. The 1998 Franco-British summit in Saint-Malo was supposed to draw a line under the history of rivalry that had long hampered Anglo-French cooperation on the continent. The Saint-Malo II agreement (Saint Malo I refers to the better-known Anglo-French agreement on defence cooperation) committed the two countries to set aside past rivalries and work together to tackle the challenges of Africa, either bilaterally or in a ‘bi-multi’ fashion (that is, with London and Paris reaching a common position then bringing in other capitals). But the precise terms and scope of this proposed cooperation were not spelt out and its achievements were limited. For the UK, Anglo-French cooperation in Africa was primarily a means of guarding against marginalisation within the EU following Britain’s decision not to join the euro. By working more closely with the French and the US on African issues within the 'P3', the UK also gained greater leverage within the UNSC. Other cooperation successes were: the inclusion of a distinct ‘Africa chapter’ at Anglo-French summits; senior-level meetings and staff exchanges between staff from the UK and French Foreign and Defence Ministries; joint ministerial visits to Africa (e. g. David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner to the DRC in November 2008), greater coordination of positions in advance of G8/G20 summits, enhanced Anglo-French consultation within the EU on African issues, and closer coordination on the management of African crises (e. g. in DRC).
Ultimately, however, there were clear limits to cooperation, mainly due to a lack of institutional mechanisms that brought ministers, officials and institutions together. For example, DFID and the Agence Française de Développement work in very different ways, meaning that it proved extremely difficult to reach an overarching agreement and organise staff exchanges between them; there were no mechanisms for formally recording lessons learned by exchange staff and no arrangements for regular ‘reporting back’ to the ‘home’ ministry; joint initiatives on poverty reduction were not always followed up and, while the UK and France cooperated tentatively on the promotion of democracy and human rights, notably at the level of the EU (e. g. Kenya, December 2007), active collaboration was patchy (e. g. contrasting responses to the coups in Mauritania (2008) and Guinea and Madagascar (2009)).
There are several reasons for the limited cooperation on African issues. Most importantly, divergent national interests have traditionally been a significant factor. As alluded to above, for France Africa plays a crucial role in enhancing its rank in the international pecking order, while for the UK, Africa policy is more centrally a development issue. They also have divergent interests in countries that offer major economic or trading opportunities (e.g. South Africa and Nigeria, which are also France's most important economic partners on the continent). Apart from this there were also institutional constraints: different bureaucratic set-ups, ‘national policy styles’ and institutional approaches; for example, there is no exact counterpart in France of the DFID, with its cabinet seat and large aid budget, or of the Foreign Office Minister for Africa. Moreover, when operating outside of the EU and UN, France and the UK traditionally turned to the Commonwealth and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) respectively as mechanisms to promote democracy and human rights and in so doing, they tended to overlook the possibilities for joint action by each of these organisations.
France has actually undertaken two military interventions in the Sahel since 2012: Operation Serval (2013-14), together with 2000 Chadian troops, and Operation Barkhane (2014 - ongoing and, since 2017, in conjunction with the G5 Sahel Joint Force). Operation Serval, launched in January 2013, was initially held up as a model of military intervention for others to emulate, whereas with Operation Barkhane France finds itself in a quagmire with a spiralling insecurity situation not only in Mali but across much of the western Sahel. From a purely military point of view, Serval succeeded in preventing the threatened takeover of the capital, Bamako, by Islamist extremists and northern Tuareg rebels. It repelled the Islamist offensive and disbanded the rebels. The jihadists were then hunted down in the north of the country, many were killed and many more were chased out of the area. The Operation was declared a success and a peace agreement was subsequently signed in 2015 between the government and the northern rebels. Although its implementation has been very slow, a degree of security has been restored to the north of the country and the Malian army was finally able to re-enter the main regional centre, Kidal, in early 2020.
Operation Serval was superseded by Operation Barkhane in August 2014. Unlike its predecessor which was focused on one country, Mali, Barkhane is a regional response (covering the G5 Sahel countries: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) to what is seen as a broader, regional threat from Islamist extremism, transnational crime and migration. Its aim is to improve security by facilitating cross-border counter-terrorist operations and a shared/pooled response to the challenges of the Sahel-Sahara zone. In Mali, the epicentre of conflict and insecurity has shifted from the north of the country to the centre, which has experienced a major increase in violence over the last five years and where the nature of the conflict is quite different. Here, against the background of accelerating desertification due to climate change and increased economic competition as a result of the liberalisation of market structures, many local people, in their competition over resources, are experiencing a retrenchment into community-based self-defence groups to protect their families and lands. The resulting intercommunal tensions provide a fertile ground for the activities of jihadists, as they draw on and exploit longstanding grievances between farmers and semi-nomadic Fulani pastoralists, who have themselves long been persecuted by the state and other non-state militias. The centre of the country is more densely populated than the north, meaning that counter-terrorist operations are much more problematic, partly because the 'terrorists' (who are often in fact simply be young men who have joined militias to protect their families and neighbourhoods) blend in with the local population, which may well support them as the only source of protection, given the absence of the state, and partly because large-scale military operations in this, relatively populous part of the country, would likely lead to unacceptable loss of civilian lives.
As a result, since the launch of Operation Barkhane, security in both Mali and the surrounding states has deteriorated markedly. In Mali, the most pressing and damaging insecurity exists in the centre of the country, where militant jihadist groups have taken root and now present a major challenge to stability and human security. These groups have played on (and exacerbated) local conflicts in order to present themselves as protectors and providers. They have heavily recruited among disenfranchised communities, most notably the Fulani, who in turn are often unfairly targeted by both the state and sub-state community militias for their perceived association with jihadists. However, Paris is not alone in this predicament, as France heads an ‘assemblage’ of security actors in the country, with the UN and the Malian government also frequently engaged in military action against militants.
In the border regions of neighbouring states, Burkina Faso and Niger, the security situation has also steadily deteriorated. The last six years have seen growth in the capacity of existing jihadist groups and establishment of new groups. Today they are organised principally into two overarching groups. On the one side there is the Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin' (JNIM), which is al Qaeda aligned and the other is Islamic State-aligned. Previously known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the group is now considered ‘officially’ part of Islamic State West Africa Province, sharing this umbrella with an IS-aligned former Boko Haram faction in Nigeria. Functionally distinct, both groups regularly conduct attacks in the region; major recent ISWAP (ISGS) attacks include the attack on a military base in Inates in Niger in December 2019, killing 70, and an earlier attack on Malian troops at the Indelimane base, killing 53. Thus, despite mobilising considerable military resources (Barkhane is the largest external operation by French forces since the Algerian war), the assemblage of security actors in the western Sahel, with France and the UN foremost among them, has been unable effectively to use its military might to enact a workable and lasting political solution. Indeed, the security situation is getting worse and there is no clear end to the violence in sight. Moreover, alongside this rising violence is a growing disenchantment with both France and the UN MINUSMA mission, which communities feel have not provided adequate security.
More broadly, the predominantly military response to insecurity in the western Sahel, led by France, has been criticised by observers for producing new breeding grounds for violent extremism and terrorism, as extremist groups often recruit their foot-soldiers from poor communities. All available indicators show that the security situation in the region has deteriorated since 2013 and that since 2016 insecurity has spread from the north to the centre of Mali and to neighbouring countries, notably Burkina Faso. Many external state and international actors in the western Sahel—regional and international, including the French military themselves—recognise this. They acknowledge that the Sahel's problems can be addressed only by striking the necessary balance between soft security–including development initiatives and measures to improve governance—combined with hard security via military interventions. If a sustainable peace is to be achieved in the Sahel, the challenge facing all those involved is how to support regional governments to address the fundamental underlying issues of governance and development.
The increase in UK interest in the Sahel should be set in the wider context of a general upturn in UK interest in Africa driven by the need to develop non-EU markets following the Brexit vote of 2016. Prime Minister Theresa May signalled this change when she visited three African countries (South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya) in 2018, announcing plans for a long-term strategy of engagement with partners on the continent built around "shared prosperity and shared security".
With regard to the Sahel, the UK has long been active on the issue of security in the region. However, until recently there was a de facto 'division of labour' between the UK and France, with the latter playing the leading role in the western Sahel while the UK played a prominent role in Somalia and the Horn. In Mali, the UK played a small supporting role in the form of logistical support for Operation Serval by transporting armoured vehicles, freight and personnel. However, there has been a step change in UK engagement in the western Sahel since 2016. The “pivot to the Sahel” since the Brexit vote of 2016 is driven by the desire to support the UK's alliances with international partners, especially France but also Germany and the African Union, as the UK exits the European Union. The UK government's decision in 2018 to send three Chinook helicopters to Gao in support of Operation Barkhane and the further decision to deploy 250 British soldiers to Mali in support of the UN MINUSMA mission in 2020 send a strong political signal in this regard. However, while the UK government's Fusion Doctrine (announced in the 2018 National Security Capability Review) provides an opportunity to develop a coherent British approach to building stability and security in the Sahel, challenges remain. The creation of a cross-departmental Sahel department should help in this regard. However, and this is especially relevant in the Sahel, most efforts to fuse UK activities have focussed on bringing together UK officials. But for fusion to work, and endure, there must be routine engagement with all the key stakeholders, particularly other international actors, host governments and civil society (both in the UK and in-country). In this respect, some worry that the UK will be contributing to an international effort that is not taking sufficient account of the needs of local and regional partners. Moreover, much greater attention needs to be paid to the language issue: UK personnel in Mali, and more generally in the G5 Sahel countries, operate alongside French-speaking officials and personnel all the time. Unless the UK can deploy more French-speaking staff, and this applies particularly but not exclusively to the military, the language barrier will be a significant obstacle to the effectiveness of UK engagement.
Finally, it is vital to recognise that the Sahel is a 'congested space' for intervention, with multiple overlapping unilateral, bilateral and multilateral efforts aimed at building stability, countering terrorist activity, improving governance and enhancing the capacity of local partners. For British activities to 'add value' in this context, it will be essential for the UK to adopt an approach that involves engaging with both local and other international actors early on in the programme development phase, to ensure that any intervention is not duplicating the efforts of other international actors; that it matches UK capabilities to the weaknesses and shortfalls partners, especially local partners, have identified; that it ensures effective coordination of activities with other actors on the ground; and that far more is invested in language lessons for soldiers and other UK personnel deployed to the region. In the western Sahel, one area where UK engagement could make a positive difference is with regard to regional organisations and their role. The G5 Sahel was set up by five francophone states with strong support from France, partly because of concerns that their security interests were not being handled with sufficient urgency by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which also has a security mandate. Moreover, ECOWAS has a track record on promoting good governance and democracy within the region and reform in this area is crucial alongside military efforts. The G5 Sahel's concerns about marginalisation within ECOWAS are underpinned by longstanding tensions within the organisation between the Francophone and Anglophone members and also, in the security field, between Nigeria and France. The result is that ECOWAS and the G5 Sahel find themselves in competition for support and scarce resources. Yet it is clear that the problem of insecurity in the western Sahel is not confined to the G5 Sahel countries, but could easily spread to the coastal states (there have already been terrorist incidents in Côte d'Ivoire and Benin). There is therefore an urgent need to 'bring ECOWAS back in' when addressing the question of insecurity in the Sahel. The UK, with good relations with Nigeria and the other Anglophone members of ECOWAS and a growing involvement in the Francophone countries, is potentially well placed to help facilitate this and bring France on board.
When he was elected president in 2012, Hollande attached great importance to building new economic partnerships with Africa, with the aim of doubling the value of French trade and investment within five years. France had seen its share of the African market reduced by 50 per cent in the previous ten years. In the face of growing competition from China and the other emerging economies, the Hollande government sought to reverse this downward trend and estimated at the time that, if this objective could be reached, it would create over 200,000 jobs in France. This emphasis on economic partnerships has continued, and indeed intensified, under his successor President Macron.
It is not new that France has significant, strategically important economic interests to defend. For example, oil in Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and the Gulf of Guinea and uranium in Niger are central to France’s energy security. French banks and construction and public utilities companies have major interests across west and central Africa in sectors such as infrastructure, telecommunications, transport, water, gas and electricity. Ensuring the security of French personnel working in the region (especially following the kidnapping of five Areva staff in Niger in 2010), and more generally of the large number of French citizens and bi-nationals living in the region, is also a concern. However, what has been particularly noticeable since 2012 is a significant reorientation of French trade links away from the traditional Francophone pré carré towards the big economic powers in sub-Saharan Africa: Nigeria, South Africa and Angola. Thus, during President Hollande's visit to South Africa, major contracts were signed by Alstom to supply new commuter trains—a 10-year contract worth 3.8 billion euros—and by GDF-Suez for new power stations, at a cost of €1.5 billion. Significantly also, the Agence Française de Développement now focuses its activity in Anglophone Africa: its two largest offices are in South Africa and Kenya. President Macron also broke new ground in 2017 by making a high-profile visit to Ghana (which subsequently joined the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie) and Nigeria.
Received 16 April 2020
 Since January 2019, more than 1,500 civilians have been killed in Burkina Faso and Mali, and more than one million people have been internally displaced across the Sahel – more than twice the number of persons displaced in 2018.