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Keeping a French seat at the Sub-Saharan table

In the aftermath of WW2, France’s status as a great power able to wield significant influence on the world stage was under threat by the growing geopolitical might of the United States and the Soviet Union. Against this backdrop, Former Prime Minister François Mitterrand made the claim in 1957 that, “without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century.”

While this statement seems hyperbolic given that it was made 43 years before the start of the 21st century, it is actually rather unremarkable. Significant portions of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have long been viewed by France’s political establishment as its natural sphere of influence and a necessary force multiplier for the nation – enabling it to compete on the world stage while also providing for the needs of the metropole

Direct colonial control over approximately 15 million people – as per the 1931 French Census - in SSA provided vital markets and resources for the French economy. However, pressure to decolonise mounted on the French government in the 1950s. 

With a national population of 46 million, France represented approximately five per cent of the world economy in the 1960s. When compared to the roughly twenty-eight per cent of the world economy held by the 180 million citizens of the US – it is clear that if the economic benefits and political clout which France received from francophone SSA were completely lost, the nation’s ability to project power on the world stage would be irreconcilably damaged.

In light of this consideration, the French political establishment opted to develop a system of indirect influence. New African nations born out of France’s SSA territories were compelled to sign two secret co-operation agreements. The first offered France privileged access to their raw materials. The second obliged France to protect the regimes of new African Presidents; in return they would support French positions in international arenas, such as the UN, and confer preferential treatment on French companies.

Furthermore, the new African nations were strongly encouraged to continue to use the CFA franc, whose governance was overseen by the French government and which helped to remove barriers to trade between francophone SSA and France. 

This approach, later termed ‘Françafrique’, was maintained by a complex and clandestine series of business and political relationships and it enabled France to exercise outsized influence in francophone SSA, thereby stabilising its ability to project power internationally. 

However, global developments have begun to undermine France’s long-held position in francophone SSA.

The arrival of Chinese capital and competitors has challenged the traditional dominance of French firms. 

When the government of Côte d'Ivoire, a nation of 24 million people situated on Africa’s west coast, announced a 109 billion CFA francs (AUD$274 million) tender to construct a bridge in 2018, ten out of the eighteen companies that expressed interest were either Chinese firms or in partnership with them. 

China State Construction Engineering was eventually announced as the winner of the tender process, while no French company made the shortlist.

This example is indicative of the broader Chinese approach towards SSA, where a willingness to invest in areas traditionally seen as risks has seen the value of Chinese investments and contracts increase to $299 billion (AUD$753 million) as of 2018. This represents both an immediate and long-term risk to French political and commercial influence. 

The second development involves moves towards greater African solidarity which could threaten the unique relationship between France and francophone SSA. 

This year the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which encompasses all but three of Africa’s fifty-five countries, formally came into effect

One of AfCFTA’s principal objectives is to improve intra-regional trade, which currently stands at a mere 17 per cent. Increased intra-regional trade will require African economies to shift away from resource extraction. Given that 80 per cent of France’s €8.5 billion (AUD$14 billion) of imports from SSA was focused on commodities, this could prove very disruptive. 

Furthermore, increased African economic co-operation provides support to notions like a common currency, threatening the continued existence of the CFA franc. 

In the face of these contemporary challenges and recognising that francophone SSA remains critical for French global ambitions, President Macron has acted to defend France’s interests, focusing specifically on soft power initiatives and business partnerships.

The focal point of his approach has been cementing the position of the French language in Africa at a time when it is under assault from English, by pledging €200 million (AUD$330 million) towards the ‘Global Partnership for Education’. The International Francophone Organisation estimates that if current trends continue, the French speaking population will surpass 700 million by 2050, with 85 per cent of its speakers living in Africa. 

Given that a shared language aids in the development of commercial and political relationships, it is France’s immediate and long-term interests to ensure that the French language continues to dominate francophone SSA.

James Stevens is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.


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