Coming of age: The changing relations between France and its former colonies in Africa

French Foreign Ministry
French Foreign Ministry (© Wikimedia Commons)

France granted independence to most of its colonies in West and Central Africa in 1960, but French politicians believed it was essential for France to maintain close ties with these new nations to continue to be a major player in the international arena. Although France formally withdrew from the continent, it signed a number of agreements with the newly independent countries to maintain military, cultural, economic and monetary links. But now, the French neo-colonial era is coming to an end, and francophone Africa is having to come of age.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: February 2, 1996


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “Coming of Age – the changing relations between France and its former colonies in Africa”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

The end of World War Two in 1945 marked the beginning of the decolonisation process. The Netherlands lost Indonesia. France was ousted from Indochina after a protracted war of independence, and Britain was forced out of the Indian subcontinent. A decade later, the decolonisation process began in Africa with the independence of Ghana. The rest of the British, French, Belgian, Portuguese and Spanish colonies would achieve independence over the following two decades. But today, a new type of decolonisation process is taking place in Africa – in the countries which kept the strongest links with their former colonial ruler.

France granted independence to most of its colonies in West and Central Africa in 1960, but French politicians like President Charles de Gaulle believed it was essential for France to maintain close ties with these new nations for Paris to continue to be a major player in the international arena. Although France formally withdrew from the continent, it signed a number of agreements with the newly independent countries to maintain military, cultural, economic and monetary links. Officially, France left, but it actually consolidated its position in francophone Africa. This policy, says Stephen Smith, the Africa editor of the French daily Libération was known as “partir pour mieux rester”.

It meant that formal independence was granted to the former French colonies and that the French business interests and even the French political interests and military interests – there are still 9000 French soldiers permanently based on the continent – were preserved. So there was a neo-colonial system put in place, and this neo-colonial system functioned basically till the Berlin Wall went down, and from then onwards there was a zone of trouble and we’re still in there.

For over three decades, France’s control over French-speaking Africa was complete and uncontested. It was a cosy relationship for both France and the post-colonial leaders. Whenever the African elite ran into economic, political or military problems, they could turn to France. The government in Paris would provide troops to keep them in power. France seemed to have unlimited funds for Africa, and for years, France provided large numbers of development aid experts. In exchange, France could depend on the backing of its African cousins in the international arena, including at the United Nations. This support, together with France’s force de frappe – its independent nuclear arsenal – and its status as one of the victors of the Second World War enabled France to wield far more influence during the Cold War period than its size or population warranted. France’s special relationship with Africa was also lucrative for French industry, which had virtually exclusive access to the African market. According to Stephen Smith, French companies also had another significant advantage over their competitors: the CFA franc, the currency used in all of the ex-colonies. It was created shortly after the Second World War and was linked to the French currency. 100 CFA francs were worth 1 French franc.

The idea is basically that there would be a protected market in Francophone Africa. The French zone in Africa was to defend commercial interests by a very high level of appreciation of the African currency, which allowed the French business community to act and invest in francophone Africa but condemned the African industry in francophone Africa to not be competitive on the international market.

Because of the strong financial interests of both the French government and French industry in the francophone nations, France also felt it had a duty to interfere in their domestic affairs. There was another reason. As one French politician put it last century, France’s role was “to awake in other races the superior notions we have a patent on”. Clearly, 100 years of French colonial rule had not been sufficient to pass on those noble values. So France turned francophone Africa into its economic and political chasse guardée, its private domain. African leaders were keen to cultivate personal links with French presidents who were largely responsible for French foreign policy. But when it comes to Africa, says Geraldine Faes of the African affairs weekly Jeune Afrique, French presidents, including the current head of state Jacques Chirac, have been just one element in a complicated equation.

It’s very uneasy to understand how it works. In fact, you have the Elysée cell headed by Miche Dupuch. This is the official part. You have the unofficial part with Fernand Wibaux, a very well-known old man working in Africa for years who is special counsellor to Jacques Chirac on African matters. You have a third person with Jacques Foccart who is now very old but he still has personal relations with all the African heads of state. So you have those three persons working directly with Jacques Chirac, the head of state. Then you have the minister of cooperation Quai d’Orsay, ministry of foreign affairs, and then you have the Trésor, so financial part, and they hold the main part of the financial decisions. So you have at least five different centres of decision. They don’t agree on anything in fact. Most of the time, the Quai d’Orsay is at war with the minister of cooperation, and they are both at war with the minister of finance. Then you have the three people working with Jacques Chirac who disagree. EB: So what is the policy? Is it a policy of compromises? No, it depends on the country. For instance, you know that for Zaire, the most influential person is Fernand Wibaux because he’s very close to President Mobutu. You know that for Ivory Coast, it’s Michel Dupuch because he was a French ambassador for 14 years in Ivory Coast. So for each country, for each problem, one person is more powerful than the others. If you try to find a rational policy, you are sure that you will fail.

Rationality though is rarely a priority in determining policy. Maintaining the status quo politically, economically and militarily in its relations with Africa was far more important to France. But by the 1980s, this privileged relationship was becoming strained. France’s neo-colonial empire was simply becoming too expensive. According to Albert Osei, the resident representative of the World Bank in Burkina Faso, the huge subsidies and loans as well as the cost of maintaining the parity between the French franc and its African counterpart, the CFA franc, were simply becoming too great a drain on the French treasury. All the countries of the CFA zone, including Burkina Faso, were going bankrupt.

In a lot of these countries, the civil servants’ salary was paid at the end of the month by a remittance from France. Now, you can’t have your cake and eat it. If people think they can continue to run a modern, sovereign state whose civil servants are paid by the French taxpayer month after month, I’m sorry, this was not a sustainable situation. You have a situation where, for example in Burkina, every year exports could only pay for half of imports. The rest was France and gifts from the people and also some borrowed money from institutions like the World Bank. Again, how can you keep on doing this?

By the late 1980’s, France realised that it was time for a serious reassessment of its relationship with its former colonies. Faced with growing economic problems at home, France turned to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to see what could be done. Both the IMF and the World Bank recommended a series of measures to get African economies back on track. The Washington-based institutions also urged France to devalue the CFA franc, which had maintained its parity with the French franc for more than four decades. It was bound to be an unpopular move in Africa, says Geraldine Faes of the weekly Jeune Afrique, and the French government tried to put it off as long as possible.

For two or three years, they were absolutely opposed to the devaluation. Then they started to realise that it was more and more difficult to support African economies without the support of the World Bank. And during the discussion they had together, the World Bank and the IMF said if you don’t accept this devaluation, you are going to support, financially I mean, these African economies alone, and it was impossible for France. They tried to do it in 1993, and then they realised it was impossible, so they gave up.

But France wasn’t only facing pressure from the World Bank and the IMF to abandon the CFA franc. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the leaders of the European Community – as it was still known then – were dreaming of bringing all the nations from the Urals to the Atlantic Ocean. France began to realise that its special relationship with Africa could not continue indefinitely. In late 1991, the European Community decided in the southern Dutch city of Maastricht to step up the process of European integration. They agreed to introduce a common European currency around the turn of the century. The Maastricht Treaty called into question the very existence of the CFA franc because the French franc would have to merge with the other European currencies to form the new common currency: the euro. Besides, says Grégoire Balaro of Benin’s National Institute of Economics, France’s European partners are not as attached to Africa as Paris is.

The Germans were the first to question France’s monetary union with Africa. The British followed, and then other European countries began asking questions too. The introduction of the new common European currency, the euro, would obviously pose real problems. France would have to convince its European partners to accept a new currency linked to the euro. It would have to invent an Afro euro. Whether it happens or not is a big question mark.

Within the space of a few years, it had become clear to everyone, including the French, that a devaluation of the CFA franc was essential. With its back to the wall, France summoned its African partners for an urgent meeting and, a few days later in January 1994, the CFA franc was devalued by 50%. For Africans, says Jovi Epiphana (sp?) of Benin’s Statistics Institute, the effects of the devaluation were felt immediately, in particular in the cities.

The devaluation caused inflation to rise to about 50%. The price of food, for example, in Benin rose 40%, transport costs by 50%, energy by 90%. And the price of products from the European Union increased on average by 114%. There was virtually no compensation for city dwellers, no salary increases. The result was growing numbers of homeless people and increased poverty.

The poor are not the only ones complaining about the effects of the devaluation. Africa’s intellectuals and elite, says Grégoire Balaro of Benin’s National Institute of Economics, knew that the devaluation could only mean one thing: the beginning of the end of a special relationship that had been forged out of independence three decades earlier.

We Africans felt like we had been stabbed in the back. We knew that France was becoming more integrated in Europe and that it had its own problems, but for years Africa gave much more to the French treasury than it received. In fact, in the early post-colonial years, the French franc remained strong thanks to the CFA franc. But when we experienced an economic crisis in the 1980’s, France suddenly decided that Africa had become a burden and it got rid of us.

The umbilical cord was being severed, Africans believed. From now on, everything would be different. Their feeling of abandonment was reinforced a few months later by events in central Africa. In the spring of 1994, Rwanda exploded in an orgy of killing that left between 1 and 1.5 million people dead in the space of three months.

Rwanda had been a Belgian colony but in the post-colonial years, it was integrated in France’s zone of influence in the continent. By 1990, France was sending weapons and troops to Rwanda to help the country’s Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana to fight a Tutsi-led rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Many Africans and others today believe France’s assistance gave the president and his Hutu militiamen time to prepare the massacre of Rwanda’s  Tutsi population. And they say when the genocide began, France was just as indifferent to the massacres as the rest of the international community. Despite France’s assistance to President Habyiramana, the RPF rebels continued to advance. By 1993, says Stephen Smith, French officials decided that a negotiated settlement with the RPF was inevitable.

They said we asked Habyrimana to open up formally his country, his regime – a very autocratic regime but not more autocratic than others in Africa – to open it up to pluralism. He did so and in exchange we guaranteed the territorial integrity. We stood by him. They really backed him till the bitter end. That’s a matter of fact and they should have seen that there was genocidal tendencies in the regime. That’s the real responsibility of the French, but it was a political decision and not a criminal partnership as such.

Nonetheless, says Ouédraogo Halidou of the Interafrican Human Rights Union in Burkina Faso, Africans tend to take a more cynical and critical view of France’s involvement in Rwanda.

In January 1993, the Rwandan army grew from 10,000 troops to 40,000. 10 million dollars was given to Rwanda to purchase weapons from Egypt. France was behind this. After the presidential plane was shot down, France urged the United Nations Security Council to withdraw UNAMIR, the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. But when the scale of the genocide became clear, France decided to launch Operation Turquoise, and French soldiers set up a safety zone in south-western Rwanda. Then in the Security Council, France campaigned to have UN troops return to Rwanda. France’s policy was incoherent. These military expeditions seemed to me to belong to another era.

The French disagree. They were in a no win situation, they say. Had they done nothing, they would have been accused of abandoning Rwanda. But because they did do something, Africans and others are accusing France of involvement in the genocide. Coming only months after the devaluation, the Rwandan genocide made many African leaders and intellectuals re-assess their relations with France, and many like Professor Roger Gbégnonvi of the University of Benin now feel bitter.

There is a lack of love between us now. It verges on contempt, even hatred. You can only hate someone you’ve loved passionately and who then deeply disappoints you. We feel more and more that France is hypocritical and cynical. Maybe it always was, but we were not aware of it. France did support the democratisation process in Africa a few years ago and rightly so. But France did not support it wholeheartedly. Paris continued to back dictators like Togo’s strongman General Eyadema or Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. It all makes us seriously question France’s role. We feel like we’ve lost a mother, and we’re now looking for another one.

The French government insists that it remains committed to its special relationship with Africa. But Geraldine Faes of the weekly Jeune Afrique says the devaluation of the CFA franc isn’t the only sign that France is reviewing its relationship with the continent despite France’s protestations to the contrary.

Every day, the French minister of cooperation says that they are not going to abandon Africa. They say that every day. Jacques Chirac says that each time he goes to Africa. But in fact, you can see that the number of cooperants, French cooperants and French expatriates has been cut off. I think it’s now half of what it was five or ten years ago. Then the credits are diminishing. Then the budget of the cooperation was cut off 5% this year. The number of French military in Africa is diminishing every year and so on and so on.

Stephen Smith, the Africa editor of the French daily Libération, agrees. France is disengaging from Africa. Over three decades after independence, Africa must now come of age.

You have to lose your father at some time. We cannot say we oppose neo-colonial rule and say we want sovereignty and independence, which the Africans say as well and I think they’re basically right, and then say France should take care of this and that and maybe of everything. Personally, I think it’s inevitable and therefore out of discussion that Africa grows up and takes care of its own affairs. I do not pretend that I expect that the Africans will do that better than the neo-colonial rule. This is a totally different question, but I think it’s inevitable they do so, and the devaluation is a leap forward towards that sovereignty and independence of Africa, whatever it will bring.

In francophone Africa, disappointment and bitterness still remain over France’s slow but inexorable disengagement from the continent. But the French moves have also forced people in French-speaking Africa and the rest of the continent to re-examine the post-independence era, says Professor Roger Gbégnonvi of the National University of Benin and give new thought to the future.

I think Africa has realised that the links it had, still has with the Western powers, have not necessarily benefited Africa. Now we are discovering they didn’t really like us. They just wanted to use us. If these ties become looser, Africans will have to accept that we must rely on ourselves. I think it would be a good thing if the links were not as close as they used to be.

Everyone is well aware that France’s disengagement from the continent will be a long and difficult process. The relationship between France and its African partners was above all an emotional one. Many Africans have studied at French universities. They still travel regularly to France and deal frequently with French experts. France is also home to a sizeable African community, which stays in close touch with home in Africa. In fact, the French presence and influence have been so pervasive, says Boubacar Diallo of the independent Burkinabe weekly Le Journal du Jeudi that France’s gradual disengagement from francophone Africa is bound to have profound implications.

Today the question isn’t whether or not to accept the disengagement but rather how to extract ourselves from this intimate relationship. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Africa went through a democratisation process, and new leaders were elected in many francophone countries. But that doesn’t mean that our nations have been reborn and freed from the past. The pillars which supported this special relationship between France and Africa are still in place. Newly-elected presidents have to work with these people or they have to find backing elsewhere.

The consequences of France’s evolving policy are clearest in economic terms.  Since the devaluation of the CFA franc, there’s been a significant drop in trade between France and the continent, says Albert Osei. The World Bank representative in Burkina Faso. But the measure has proved to be a boon for the economies of the region, including for the Burkinabe economy.

There is no doubt and there is plenty of evidence that the production of local goods has increased markedly, whether it be cotton where the areas sown to cotton have increase by about 50% after the devaluation. Or exports of cattle to the coastal areas, the profitability of the textile factory, the profitability of the oil milling.

The devaluation has not only increased the competitiveness of products from the CFA zone, says Jacques Ouédraogo Gueda, an assistant professor of economics and administration at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. It has also boosted trade within the CFA zone as well as with  neighbouring countries.

Our exports towards Ivory Coast have increased, and we’ve been able to enter new markets in Ghana, for example. We didn’t use to have any trade with them, but now Ghana imports a lot of meat from us, as do Togo, Benin and a number of other countries. There’s been a substantial increase in our exports of live cattle and chickens thanks to the devaluation. Our costs here in Burkina Faso have remained the same because most cattle survive on the feed they find in the wild.

Regional trade is likely to increase even more in the coming years, and France’s share of the African market will continue to drop. In the new world economic order, says Stephen Smith of the French daily Liberation, this was inevitable.

It was impossible to have a colonial treaty going on until the end of the 20th century, where France would have market shares of 60% in terms of imports and exports in a specific part of the world, whereas the average rate in the rest of the world would be basically 5%. You see the discrepancy. I think it was very late and might now be done in the best way in terms of African interests.

The economies of West and Central Africa are too weak to replace France’s annual contributions, grants and loans to the region. Cattle breeders and farmers are among those who have benefited from the devaluation. But people in urban areas have seen their purchasing power shrink or disappear. Not only have imports become more expensive, structural adjustment policies have led to increases in the price of basic services like education and health care. The lucky ones have been able to find one or more extra jobs to help make ends meet. But many are struggling. The French government has been trying to offset some of the social costs of the devaluation and has been providing additional assistance to help the urban poor. The extra funding, says François Gaulme, the editor of the Paris-based weekly on African economic affairs, Marchés Tropicaux, is just one indication that France remains committed to francophone Africa.

France has earmarked large amounts of money to assist Africa in the wake of the 1994 devaluation. The current French president Jaques Chirac is no less committed to Africa than his predecessor, François Mitterrand. I believe France would like to maintain the close ties it used to have with Africa, but it’s true that France’s funding of development cooperation projects has been falling steadily for over a decade now.

Since the political and military links between Africa and France have become less relevant in the post-Cold War era, many African affairs specialists are convinced that market forces will increasingly dictate Franco-African relations. France is now turning its attention to the more lucrative markets of the European Union, eastern and central Europe and Asia. Nonetheless, French financial interests in Africa remain strong, says Stephen Smith of the French daily Liberation, and it will be some time before France truly ends its special relationship with the continent.

I think that as long as there’s direct investment that’s about 10 billion French francs, direct French investment in Africa, and diplomatic and political interests, there’s still some comfort and profit to be taken out of that situation, but it’s ebbing down, and as soon as it reaches a zero level or almost a zero level, then the last to leave will be the military, who were the first to arrive.

No one knows when the last French troops currently stationed in Africa will close their remaining bases. But French soldiers and the other relics of France’s presence in the continent seem to be remnants of a bygone era. The French neo-colonial era is coming to an end. Francophone Africa is having to come of age.

Historically one can say that a page has already been turned, but there’s every single day a post scriptum to be added to that page. It’s fading out. It might be over the next 2, 3 or 5 or 10 years, but it’s a very old system, and there’s still people interested in that system taking advantage of the system, even personally not only in France, but also in Africa. It’s something you have to look at as a dynamic relationship, so it could last much longer than one would expect, but I don’t think it will go very far beyond the turn of the century.

“Coming of Age” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Frank Meijer. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.