Over the past two decades, France’s influence in French-speaking Africa, including the Maghreb region, has plummeted. This decline began under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy due to his arrogant policy in his relations with African heads of state, noting that he had irritated several African leaders, as well as public opinion, when he was Interior Minister in the French government and put forward provocative proposals to combat illegal immigration from the African continent to the EU.
During the administration of Socialist President François Hollande, relations between France and French-speaking Africa enjoyed a moment of respite, but they have deteriorated under current President Emmanuel Macron. And while France’s relations with countries like Morocco and Algeria have been in open crisis for the past three years, because these two countries are virtually independent in their political and diplomatic decisions, the question arises differently with African countries that are looking for a “godfather” in international relations and are finding it in China, Russia and, relatively speaking, Turkey.
The development of relatively acceptable democracy in some countries of the Sahel and West Africa, followed more recently by military coups in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, has led to a change in political discourse towards France. An analysis of the statements made by African leaders shows that this discourse rests on two pillars: the first is the need to reduce the presence of French companies in the region, for reasons of exploitation rather than mutual interest.
The second is the desire of these countries to make independent political decisions, far from the influence of Paris. Washington took note of France’s weakening influence when these African countries rejected Paris’s request to vote against Russia at the United Nations over the war in Ukraine. The digital newspaper Maliweb recently published an analysis according to which “after Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, Niger is throwing a party for the West”.
As French influence has declined, China, Russia and Turkey have begun to increase their influence in Africa, particularly in what is known as “Francophone Africa”. Over the past two years, President Macron has not hesitated to accuse Moscow and Ankara, as well as Beijing, of being hostile to the French presence on the continent.
What has happened in Mali, Burkina Faso and now Niger since the military coup of 23 July 2023 is seen as a major example of France’s declining influence. On the one hand, France has devoted efforts to eliminating armed terrorist movements in Mali as part of the “Barkhane” operation, while Mali accepts that Paris is still fomenting terrorism in the region. On the other hand, Niger is considered vital to France’s nuclear power stations because of the uranium it produces, and now Paris is losing the country to Russia and China.
French-speaking African countries are adopting a policy similar to that of Latin American countries against the United States. Since the early 1990s, with the Latin Spring of Democracy and the decline of military governments in countries such as Chile, Argentina and Brazil, and the rise of the left to power in countries such as Venezuela, these countries have begun to hold Washington to account for its past support for the dictatorial regimes and coups d’état that had plagued the region in previous decades. At the same time, solid relations are being forged with countries such as Russia and China, to the extent that the latter has become an important trade and economic partner for most of the countries in the region.
The difference between the United States and France remains that Latin American countries criticise Washington for its role in supporting dictators and exploiting the region’s resources. In the case of France, Africans criticise Paris for its support for dictators and the atrocious exploitation of the region’s resources, as well as crimes linked to the French colonial era.