Earlier on in January 2003, France had significantly escalated its 2002 intervention in Côte d’Ivorie, to the west, by reinforcing its overall troops’ deployment to about 4000 and expanding the so-called sandwich territory between it and the forces of the Ivorian state and north-based insurgents. Given the frequency and the tally of its military interventions in Africa since 1960, France has, contrary to prevailing international perception, the worst record of Northern World power state military intervention in the Southern World.

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe (March 2003)

It never ceases to amaze how very hypocritical indeed French foreign policy considerations can be especially when it comes to Africa. For a country that has displayed unrelenting opposition to the ongoing US and British military intervention in Iraq, France appears to be basking in the global populist imagination as perhaps the country that not only invented the concept of “non-intervention” in other countries’ internal affairs, but is guided unambiguously by this principle in its own policy in practice.

The robust performance of Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin during those dramatic January-March 2003 UN Security Council debates on Iraq would have added vivid credibility to this assumption. In one memorable session in these debates, de Villepin’s opposition to military intervention drew unprecedented applause from even usually reticent diplomats. Such were the liberatory contents in de Villepin’s address that one would not have been too mistaken if they thought that these had been derived unedited from the seminal papers of Amilcar Cabral.

Yet, a few weeks after these declarations and coupled with the preoccupation of an international media audience intensely focused on the unfolding Iraqi crisis, France intervened militarily in the Central African Republic (CAR). In the wake of a coup d’état that had toppled the Angé-Felix Patassé regime in Bangui (CAR capital), France sent its troops into the country under the pretext of “protecting French nationals” - the standard French rationalisation for its military interventions in Africa in the past 43 years which, in reality, are aimed at protecting the extensively entrenched socio-economic and strategic interests that Paris still wields across its former conquered African countries. France’s mid-March invasion of the CAR is its second military intervention in Africa this year and the 48th since 1960.

Earlier on in January 2003, France had significantly escalated its 2002 intervention in Côte d’Ivorie, to the west, by reinforcing its overall troops’ deployment to about 4000 and expanding the so-called sandwich territory between it and the forces of the Ivorian state and north-based insurgents. Given the frequency and the tally of its military interventions in Africa since 1960, France has, contrary to prevailing international perception, the worst record of Northern World power state military intervention in the Southern World.

Quintessential Target

Africa has been the quintessential target of French military interventionism during this period because immanent in the worldview of the French political establishment, irrespective of ideological/political colouration, none of the former French-conquered and occupied African states is really independent or sovereign by any breadth or shade of either of these definitions. Instead, according to this conception, these are francophonie backwoods, which, at best, have some measure of local administrative autonomy (hence, “francophone Africa”!), with ultimate sovereign power lodged at the metropolitan centre in Paris.

If recent evidence from the highest level of political authority of the French state is required to buttress this line of thought, we should recall that very introspectively frank declaration made on the subject in the early 1990s by the former socialist president of France, Francois Mitterand: “Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century.” It was however Mitterand’s conservative Guallist party presidential counterpart, Charles de Gaulle, who, 50 years earlier, had inaugurated the now well-known French obsession to control Africa in perpetuity. The irony of the circumstances was indeed not lost on anyone.

Despite France’s early capitulation to Germany in 1940 in the latter’s war of aggression against its neighbours, de Gaulle, then exiled leader of the anti-German “French Free Forces” struggling desperately to effect French liberation, was himself vociferously opposed to the liberation of Africa. Africa, we mustn’t forget, was then under the jackboot of French occupation and those of its British and Belgian wartime allies. During the 1944 Brazzaville conference of French “overseas” governors which de Gaulle chaired, he was adamant in what he saw as his vision of the future of French-occupied Africa: “Self-government must be rejected - even in the more distant future.”

Supercilious Antagonism

De Gaulle’s supercilious antagonism to African liberation was of course not unique at the time. Similar sentiments were evident in the position of Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, who insisted that he had not attained his position as head of government to “preside over the liquidation of the British empire.” The Belgian king and government who barely resisted Germany’s attack and overrun of their country beyond three weeks in May 1940, were themselves equally unwilling to discontinue their occupation of Congo (Congo Democratic Republic) after Germany’s eventual defeat in 1945. This was in spite of the central role that the Congo played in the financing of the Belgian war effort (including the entire expenses of the country’s exiled royal family and government in London), which totalled the grand sum of £40 million.

As a result, Belgium neither borrowed any money to pay for the war nor was its gold reserve used. But unlike British and Belgian leaders, de Gaulle pursued France’s long time ambitions in Africa with megalomaniac intensity in the years after 1945 – opposing African liberation projects in the western and central regions of the continent under French occupation as well as on the islands off the east coast in the Indian Ocean especially Madagascar. However in 1958, de Gaulle changed track somewhat in his anti-African independence drive. Stung and disillusioned by the 1954 spectacular and humiliating defeat of French forces in Vietnam and the looming disaster in its ongoing war in Algeria, de Gaulle produced a document for a purported future of African freedom. In the main, this document envisioned a circumscribed African independence outcome that would ensure continuing French political and economic hegemony in Africa. Apart from Guinea, which opposed it when it was put to a referendum, France succeeded in imposing the document on the rest of its occupied states, with evident compliance with some segments of the African leadership of the restoration-of-independence movement, and the all too familiar tragic consequences since. The stage was now set for France to invoke the licence, at its own choosing, to intervene in the political process of any of its prized African lands of francophonie: invade, intimidate, manipulate, install, antagonise, ingratiate, indemnify, expropriate, invade, intimidate ...

Abetting Genocide and Militarism

Hardly any of the 22 countries that make up francophonie escaped this epoch of witnessing the invasion of their territory by some contingent of the French military from one of its numerous bases in the region or from those further away in Corsica. Countries such as Central African Republic (or Central African Empire as it was known when it was ruled by the very francophile acolyte and dictator, Jean-Bedel Bokassa), Rwanda (French military intervention was ongoing in the country as the forces of the pro-French central government perpetrated its dreadful genocide against the Tutsi in the mid-1990s), Burundi, Djibouti and Chad bore the brunt of the invasions as France sought to enforce or safeguard the fortunes of one client regime or the other. But it was the Congo Democratic Republic (or Zaïre or Congo-Kinshasa), the jewel in the crown of francophonie, which has the unenviable record of being the most invaded of the lot. Between 1961 and 1996, France intervened 17 times in the country to prop up the notorious dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, which destroyed one of Africa’s richest economies. For France, therefore, its hegemonic control of “francophone Africa” in the past 40 years has been a lucrative and prestigious rearguard quest to maintain a stranglehold of influence in the Southern World despite the obvious militarily weakened position of its overall international status after the end of the 1939-1945 war.

Jacques Godfrain, who was a former head of the French foreign ministry, is perfectly right to observe: “A little country, with a small amount of strength, we can move a planet because [of our] ... relations... with 15 or 20 African countries.” This factor is crucial in understanding why the seemingly “humanist” tenor of French foreign policy rhetoric the world has witnessed lately lacks resonance in the African auditorium. Yet, despite its near-monolithic activity in the lives of a generation and the resultant semblance of durability, the importance and influence of francophonie in Africa is beginning to wane. Events in Africa in the past 10 years have seriously weakened and undermined its efficacy. The anti-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, organised premeditatedly by France’s ruthless local clients in power in Kigali whilst a French expeditionary force was operating in the country, was a monumental indictment of the entire francophonie project in Africa. France could not escape some complicity in this horrific slaughter of 800,000 Africans.


Pointedly, there has been a partial eclipse of French influence in this central/southern Africa region since the genocide. The popular overthrow and subsequent death in exile of Congolese dictator Mobutu, during the same period, was a further blow to the fortunes of francophonie in the region. Elsewhere in the empire, the tentacles of francophonie were also beginning to unravel. The situation in the Côte d'Ivoire economic powerhouse was of particular relevance. The sudden death in 1993 of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the Ivorian political colossus who had been state president since 1960, created a serious crisis of succession in the country that still remains unresolved. In 2002, it became the background of a tragic war between the state and insurgents in its north region and the precipitate collapse of Africa’s most successful economy. In Sénégal, France's attempt to continue to dictate its choice of leaders in francophonie was massively rejected in the 2000 presidential elections when Abdoulaye Wade, the veteran opposition politician, defeated Abdou Diouf, the incumbent president and Paris’s preferred candidate.

In a desperate effort to stem the steady decline of francophonie, France embarked on its biennial so-called African-French summit that extends invitation to leaders of non-league states. It was in this context of francophonie-extension in the 1990s that France intensely courted the friendship of Sani Abacha, the Nigerian dictator and genocidist military commander who participated in the 1966-1970 Igbo genocide, who was at the time internationally quarantined as a result of his regime’s gross human rights violations. Abacha’s predictable appreciation at this gesture of breaking out of painful political and economic isolation was followed by a deft regime decision that keyed into the inner workings of the infrastructure of francophonie: Nigeria would hence embark on an intensive educational/allied cultural programme to adopt French as an additional lingua franca to English! Paris was delighted. But it was very short-lived indeed. The lingua franca opportunism died with the genocidist and dictator in 1998!

It was also in the context of the forum of fancophonie-extension that President Jacques Chirac insisted on his invitation of Zimbabwean President Mugabe to last February’s summit between him and African leaders in Paris despite the European Union ban on travels to member states by principal Zimbabwean state leaders. Chirac was of course not interested in discussing with his guests how to find lasting solutions to the acute crises besetting Zimbabwe nor indeed those of the wider continent. He had literally “summoned” these leaders of francophonie-extension to Paris to endorse a solely French-prepared, so-called African-French Declaration on Iraq. This was nothing but the French position on its turbulent two-cornered diplomatic stand-off on the possibilities of a US-led war in Iraq – against Britain and Spain in the European Union, and against the US, Britain and Spain at the United Nations. France brooked no debate with the visiting Africans on the subject (not to mention the central and east European prospective members of the European Union that it had ordered to “shut up!” for daring to oppose its stance whilst siding with the US’s) even though it exuded enormous pride in debating its opposition openly against both the US and Britain! Most disgracefully of course, the world did not know of the independent views of the 50 visiting African heads of state who had variously travelled 3000-12000 miles to the summit. It was left to Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, the affable Senegalese foreign minister, to put a brave face on an awkward situation when he claimed, albeit unconvincingly, that the African voice had not been heard in Paris because “we Africans, we respect our host, you don’t challenge the host!”

Not-African, Doubtful Prospects

There was of course nothing “African” in the behaviour of these utterly failed and failing leaders to remain silent during those two days in Paris. Africans know that Africans speak their minds whether they are hosts or guests ... It was clearly the choice of leaders who most of the time are at war with their own populations, their own people, to remain silent because they lacked the integrity to state their positions on a subject whose varying facets and strands did in fact expose the state of their ruinous regimes back home. Even though Gadio was doing all he could to minimise the glaring character of the disgrace that these leaders had brought on themselves, the implication of his assertion was nonetheless troubling. If these leaders had remained silent and endorsed the French position of opposition to the impending war on Iraq because they were “Africans [who] respect [their] host,” they would equally have remained silent and endorsed the contrary British pro-war agenda on Iraq (because they were “Africans [who] respect [their] host”) if only Prime Minister Blair had also “summoned” them to a London summit soon after being wined and dined and all expenses paid by the Elysee Palace.

It is now clear that the tenuousness of francophonie in Africa, despite French propaganda to the contrary, lies right in its foundational premise of operations: the incorporation of a league of nations that exists to serve French interests whilst critically dependent on its day to day operations on usually ruthless anti-African local leaderships. This ruthlessness is a feature of its overarching moral and intellectual bankruptcy, which ensures that it does the bidding of such projects as francophonie or francophonie-extension because of the firm grip that it exercises on its home turf. Paradoxically, though, this grip is all too brittle as can be seen in the immediate consequences on francophonie in the event of the overthrow or death of the dictator. The French find it extremely difficult to contemplate that, with the intense African grassroots’ pressure on their inept leaderships which can only increase, francophonie has no long-term prospects in Africa. While the overall socio-economic situation across the continent is currently in a state of flux, Africa is unlikely to return to that spurious stability epoch of the Houphouët-Boignys and Senghors or the murderous repression of the Mobutus and Bokassas which enhanced the development of francophonie.

France will realise much sooner than later that it cannot continue to construct some phantom prestige in international relations based on its control of the destiny of Africa and Africans. If there is any single lesson that France should have learnt from the Iraqi debates earlier on in the year, it is not to confuse Bangui or Brazzaville or Bujumbura or Bamako for Baghdad or Basra; Ndjamena or Niamey or Nouakchott for Nasiriya or Najaf; Kinshasa or Kigali for Karbala, Kirkuk or Kut. For the first time since 1960, the French were confronted, even if belatedly, with the Achilles’ heel of francophonie: Africa is at once the opportunity and the limit of French foreign policy impact in the contemporary world

Originally published in usafricaonline.com.