February 20, 2013 - Alex Wilner and Marco Wyss discuss the upside of Franco-African relations in Embassy. The op-ed is published below.

Wyss and Wilner are Senior Researchers at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. Wilner is also a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute in Ottawa


France's Africa links may have spared allies

By Marco Wyss and Alex Wilner, Embassy, February 20, 2013

Canadians are weary of sending troops to Mali. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird recently warned that the African conflict risked becoming "another Afghanistan." The recent suicide bombings in Gao suggest Baird may be right. However, Canada's Mali debate must take into account France's traditional, yet evolving, African security policy. Mali is in France's domain. Paris may expect Canadians to assist, but it won't call on us to take care of its backyard.

One French President after another for over forty years has sought to reset France's post-colonial African policy. Pragmatism was to replace paternalism. But in an historical context, France's intervention in Mali illustrates both the continuity and change in Franco-African foreign relations.

During the Cold War, France was known as Africa's gendarme. For President Charles de Gaulle, who oversaw much of the decolonization of French Africa in the 1960s, francophone sub-Saharan Africa remained a vital national asset. Paris relinquished territorial control but held onto the reins of power. It intervened to shape the political landscape, supported by a web of diplomatic, commercial, and military interests. Defense accords between France and most of francophone Africa strengthened Paris' military position. And through the Communauté Financière Africaine, Paris established an African monetary zone dependent on the Franc.

In the 1970s and 1980s, centrist Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and socialist Francois Mitterrand both promised to approach France's former sub-Saharan colonies with impartiality. In the 1990s, following France's controversial role during the Rwandan Genocide, French policy came under increased scrutiny. At the time, socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin described Paris' shifting position as "neither interference nor indifference." Later, conservative Nicholas Sarkozy spoke of "new" African relationships, "free of the refuse from the past." And in 2011, current President Francois Hollande said he too would end "relationships of dominance, influence and profiteering."

Political rhetoric continues to mask practical realities. France perpetually intervenes in Africa. Mali is but the latest episode. As one Western diplomat explained to us in a 2012 interview in Ivory Coast, "France's position [in Africa] is always in continuity – always in the interest of the state. There might be minor changes, but these will be in method, not in substance."

With its recent military interventions in Comoros, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, and Ivory Coast, Paris demonstrates an enduring willingness to look after its pré carré, or backyard.

Personal relationships linking French and African leaders played an especially prominent role in determining French foreign policy. African elites educated in French universities and military schools later became African leaders. Paris backed their rise and protected their rule in exchange for their support. These arrangements were mutually beneficial. Instead of imposing its will, France acquired African buy-in. When allied African leaders were threatened by domestic or foreign rivals, France intervened on their behalf.

Françafrique is the term used to describe the sum of these post-colonial relationships. And it is these relationships in particular that contemporary French Presidents have sought to curtail.

Doing so is a work in progress. Paris has adapted its African policy to appease domestic and international audiences. Its interventions are now billed as a necessity, serving broader African and humanitarian rather than narrow French interests.

Paris therefore goes out of its way to secure international mandates that sanction its use of force. For example, France intervened in Chad and the Central African Republic in 2007-2008 with European Union backing. During the 2001-2011 Ivorian crisis, the UN repeatedly endorsed French military action. And the 2012 UN Security Council roadmap authorizing an African-led intervention into Mali gave Paris diplomatic cover to act unilaterally.

France now also relies on coalitions of the willing. So far, Canada, the US, several European countries, and the UAE have provided France with military hardware and logistics for its Malian operation. Nine of Mali's regional neighbors have promised or sent troops to fight alongside the French. Partnerships like these provide France with a way to share the cost of pursuing its African policy and reinforced their legitimacy.

Paris has made headway in dismantling Françafrique but it has never truly relinquished its African foothold. It continues to operate at least five permanent military bases in Africa, which house roughly 10,000 personnel and an array of military equipment. With these pre-positioned forces, Paris has the capability to intervene rapidly almost anywhere on the continent. That was evident in the opening hours of the Mali operation. With militants days away from occupying the capital of Bamako, only Paris was in a position to act decisively.

Had France withdrawn its military from Africa, or fully turned its back on Françafrique, it could not have intervened so swiftly in Mali. And instead of now celebrating Mali's unshackling, Canadians would be contemplating a militant Islamist state in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Marco Wyss and Dr. Alex Wilner are Senior Researchers at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. Wilner is also a fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute in Ottawa.


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