Shadow of Colonial Past Hinders France in Limiting Growing Chinese and Russian Influence in Africa

By Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua is a Cameroonian multimedia freelance journalist.
March 28, 2023Updated: March 28, 2023

France’s imminent reduction of troop levels in Africa has experts eyeing which major power will supplant Paris’s influence across the continent.

The tongues started wagging after French President Emmanuel Macron announced earlier this month that his country harbors no desire to return to past policies of interfering in Africa.

During his March 1–4 tour of the continent to repair frayed ties, Macron landed in Libreville in Gabon—followed by other trips to Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, and the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo—echoing the same message: the era of French interference in Africa is “well over.”

Epoch Times Photo
A soldier of the French Special and Intervention Unit of the National Gendarmerie stands next to an NH90 Caiman Helicopter on July 15, 2022, as part of an official visit of French Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Armed Forces to Niger. (Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images)

“The age of Francafrique is well over,” Macron told a French community in Libreville, referring to France’s post-colonization strategy of supporting authoritarian leaders to defend its interests.

“Sometimes I get the feeling that mindsets haven’t moved along as much as we have, when I read, hear, and see people ascribing intentions to France that it doesn’t have,” he said.

The tour was Macron’s 18th visit to the continent as president and comes hard on the heels of Africa tours by high-level U.S., Russian, and Chinese officials seeking closer ties.

Anti-French sentiment runs high in some former African colonies as the continent now becomes a renewed diplomatic battleground, with Russian and Chinese influence growing in the region.

Paris has fallen out with new military authorities in Mali and Burkina Faso, withdrawing its troops from both former French colonies after years of helping them battle jihadists.

Macron and his predecessors, notably Francois Hollande, have previously declared that the policy of interference is “dead” and that France has no intention of meddling in sovereign affairs.

But Joshua Meservey, Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute research think tank, told The Epoch Times in an email that Macron’s assurances should be taken with “a grain of salt” given that France’s old habits of interference in its former colonies “may die hard.”

“It is true, however, that French foreign policy has suffered setbacks in the Sahel,” said Meservey.

“Its most high-profile effort on the continent for years was its counterterrorism operations in Mali, and yet it was forced to withdraw its troops in August 2022 after relations soured with the coup government there,” he said.

“The same thing happened a few months later in Burkina Faso.

“In both cases, Russian influence—primarily through the Wagner Group—likely contributed to the pressure on France. Perhaps those dramatic repudiations of French involvement have led to some soul-searching in Paris.”

Epoch Times Photo
A soldier of the Barkhane force holds a weapon in a helicopter as he flies near Ouallam’s military base, on July 15, 2022, during an official visit of French Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Armed Forces to Niger. (Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images)

Before embarking on his Africa trip, Macron said there would be a “noticeable reduction” in France’s troop presence in Africa “in the coming months” and that a greater focus on training and equipping allied countries’ forces.

Some military bases would become academies, while others would become “partner” bases, he said. They would see a “rise in the presence of their African partners according to goals defined” by those partners.

More than 3,000 French soldiers are deployed in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and Djibouti. France still has 3,000 troops in the wider Sahel region, including in Niger and Chad, but is seeking to tone down its presence on the ground.

Macron described this as a “reorganization” of French military presence, rather than a withdrawal.

But analysts, including associate professor in the Department of Political Science University of Ilorin and the University of The Gambia Luqman Saka, warn that French boots may not be leaving Africa any time soon.

“So long as the bases are not closed and continue to be used in one form or the other, French boots and military presence will still remain palpable on the continent and this has serious implications—for security policy, for response to insurgency and jihadists, among many others,” Luqman told The Epoch Times by phone.

“France claims that their military presence helps complement security of former colonies where those bases are located, but the fight against insurgency and Islamists in the Sahel has actually shown that the French are not totally committed to helping their African partner in resolving Islamism and insurgency in the Sahel.”

France’s waning influence—particularly in the Sahel region—has also allowed Russia to expand its reach in Africa, including in the digital sphere through the use of disinformation campaigns, as well as on the ground with Wagner mercenaries, who in some cases have replaced French soldiers.

Alarm has grown in Paris over the growing role of Russia in French-speaking African countries, alongside a Chinese push for influence that has been apparent for some years.

France and its Western allies accuse Wagner, infamous for its activities in Syria and Ukraine, of being active in Mali and the Central African Republic, also ruled by France in the colonial era.

Meservey says French troops are “by far preferable” to Russian mercenaries.

“The latter are parasitic; once they get onto the ground they enmesh themselves in lucrative industries, usually involving natural resources, without any apparent oversight or control from the host government,” he told The Epoch Times.

“They are then very difficult to dislodge. They are as well tools of Russian foreign policy, which is entirely hostile to the West.

“Finally, Russian mercenaries are brutal, which leads to unnecessary human suffering but will also prove to be counterproductive in the fight against terrorism.

“Their crimes will make terrorists’ appeal more convincing to local people who are suffering at the hands of Russian mercenaries and, often, government forces.”

French forces, by contrast, “are professional, do their best to minimize civilian casualties, and are not tantamount to violent organized crime syndicates” that operate at the behest of a hostile foreign power, said Meservey.

“They have killed and captured many senior terrorists, thereby saving African lives, so it is a loss for U.S. foreign interests to have them withdraw from Mali and Burkina Faso.”

Macron insisted France would steer away from “anachronistic” power struggles in Africa, saying African countries should be considered as “partners,” both militarily and economically.

But Luqman says this is an unthinkable choice for France which still has “the most penetrating influence in Africa.”

“The rest of the Western imperial powers—including the United States—leverage on France’s influence in every stratum of African society,” Luqman told The Epoch Times.

“Thinking that France will withdraw from anachronistic power struggle is not feasible. The moment France [opts to] withdraw, it means the European imperial power will have ceded Africa and their sphere of influence on the continent to China and Russia. I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon,” he said.

“France is the only Western power that has the most significant military presence, penetration, and influence on the continent through its bases.

“These bases will always come in when the West wants to engage in regime change or overthrow another government through a phantom coup, [or] if there is instability in any African country that they needed to withdraw their population [from].

“The Western imperial power is not ready to cede Africa to any other power. The struggle for control and influence or the second scramble in Africa is not going to be over anytime soon.”

Meservey said France, because of its long history in the region, has a deep understanding of local conditions in many areas, which will also be difficult to replace.

Likewise, it will be difficult for the West to fill the vacuum French troops are leaving in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel.

“France was involved in serious fighting that cost them lives and other countries, including the United States, will be hesitant to take on that burden,” Meservey told The Epoch Times.

“China will not want to fill the counterterrorism role that France had because it has no interest in possibly taking casualties and getting embroiled in a conflict.

“Russian mercenaries don’t mind the fighting, but they bring so many negatives with them that they are a big net loss to host governments.”

Solving the terrorism problem in Africa is far beyond the capacity of France, or any outside power.

Building up the capacity of local counterterrorism forces is the “only sustainable approach” to the security element of counterterrorism in Africa, according to Meservey.

“In that sense, France’s recalibration of its approach is positive,” he says.

“The best that foreign counterterrorism forces can do is to put enough pressure on terrorist groups to provide time and space for local governments to address the failures in governance that empower terrorists.

“Then it is up to Muslims themselves to discredit the Salafi-Jihadi ideology that motivates the leadership of many of the African terrorist groups, which is again something that no outside power can do.”