France, football, colonialism: Take the best, leave the rest

The colonial era may have ended, but French extractive policies in its former colonies have not.

Kylian Mbappe
Kylian Mbappe is seen as he celebrates scoring France's second goal against Argentina FIFA World Cup 2022 Final, December 18, Lusail Stadium, Doha, Qatar [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

As the Qatar 2022 World Cup saw formerly colonised peoples take on former colonial powers on the football field, conversations about “scars of the present’s past” inevitably erupted both online and offline. France, in particular, which played against both Tunisia and Morocco, found itself in the middle of them.

Amid this noise and general World Cup excitement, a relevant piece of news seemingly passed under the global media radar. On December 12, the European Union announced it was establishing “a military partnership mission” in Niger to support “its fight against terrorism”.

The mission, under the command of French Vice Admiral Hervé Bléjean, will last three years and cost some 27.3 million euros. But why is the EU spending millions in Niger amid a crushing cost of living crisis at home? And why is it pouring millions into a military mission given that the target country is one of the poorest in the world and its population would benefit much more from socioeconomic assistance?

The answer lies in France, a leading EU member, which has shown an intense interest in deepening its relations with the Nigerien government over the past few years. Some of it likely has to do with the fact that Nigerien uranium powers up French nuclear power plants – a major source of energy for the country amid the energy crunch. And some of it may also have to do with Niger’s key position as a transit country for thousands of migrants and refugees trying to pass the Mediterranean – which is the deadliest border in the world – to seek safety and decent livelihoods in Europe.

But what does Niger – a country that did not qualify for the World Cup – have to do with French football?

More than it might seem. France has pursued success in football in much the same way it has pursued economic might – through extraction.

The French team which brought the country to the World Cup final was dominated by players with diverse backgrounds, many tracing their roots to former French colonies in Africa. For example, Kylian Mbappé, who won the World Cup’s Golden Boot award, was born in France to an Algerian mother and a Cameroonian father.

Faced with comments about the origins of French football players, French officials have adamantly insisted on their “Frenchness”. They have rejected references to their origins as racist.

But that is not really the case. As Trevor Noah pointed out back in 2018 during a similar debate on inclusiveness and overlapping identities, “When I’m saying [French players are] African, I’m not trying to exclude them from their Frenchness but include them in my Africanness.”

But to go further than that – France has embraced a markedly selective assimilationist approach towards people of African origins; it is very particular about who can be French. Just some among the many immigrants and refugees who want to come to France and live there are deemed worthy of French citizenship and many people of African descent who were born in the country face structural discrimination and are not seen as fully French.

Every year, France deports more than 10,000 people who make it into the country, seeking safety and a better life. Others are relegated to a life of misery and violence under the country’s stringent anti-immigration laws and enforcement, which often come under criticism from human rights organisations. The pathway to Frenchness for immigrants and refugees seems reserved only for a select few.

There are also those who are French citizens on paper but do not seem to enjoy the “status” of being French. Take France’s Muslim community. It makes up about 8 percent of the French population and yet, between 40 percent and 70 percent of those incarcerated in French prisons are Muslims, mainly from former French colonies in Africa.

The community suffers from high impoverishment and school dropout rates and is isolated in city peripheries. It is also systematically othered by mainstream politicians who openly embrace Islamophobia and accuse the Muslim population of being “extremist” and threatening French values.

In other words, France engages in cherry-picking inclusiveness, which tends to exclude much more than include. Mbappé is French because he is a talented football player; a French-born youth of North African origin imprisoned for a certain crime, or simply unemployed and relegated to the peripheries of inequity known as “banlieues”, on the other hand, is often just an “Arab”.

This cherry-picking inclusiveness is also a manifestation of neo-colonialism, through which France extracts human talent from its former colonies and rejects the rest – the unworthy. Indeed, colonialism was precisely that: it took and absorbed the best out of other lands, while rejecting everything else, and giving very little, if anything, in exchange.

And this takes us back to Niger, from where France has been extracting uranium for decades, giving very little in return to the Nigerien people and worse, polluting their soil and water. While reaping the benefits of energy generated by cheap uranium, France has done little to help the Nigerien population, only 13 percent of which has access to electricity.

Niger also uses the CFA franc as its currency, a colonial relic that economically binds former French colonies to Paris. Some 50 percent of the monetary reserves of 14 African countries, Niger included, are still today under full French control; as a result, none of them has any control over its macroeconomic and monetary policy. France makes billions of euros from Africa annually in the form of “reserves”, and lends part of the same money to its owners at market rates.

It is not coincidental that Niger’s main highway, on which many extracted resources are transported to Niamey and other strategic areas, follows today the exact route of the mass atrocities carried out by the troops of Paul Voulet, the French army captain who in 1899 sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the United Kingdom got there.

Much has changed since colonial times, but Africa’s exploitation is continuing with corrupted governments in many African countries guaranteeing the “stability” needed to carry out these processes – among much else, they receive for this end weapons worth billions of euros which they also use to crush internal dissent.

How to counter all this? There are no easy recipes. Yet, rejecting “cherry-picked inclusivity”, which is particularly visible in the French case, would be a step in the right direction.

Another step could be looking into the legacy of Senegalese film director and writer Ousmane Sembène, who produced a number of works with the aim of fostering the reconstruction of an African space rooted in largely lost African cultural values and traditions. Sembène did not oppose the influence of non-African cultures, including the cultures of (neo)colonists, but rather suggested Africans embrace them in a more lucid and informed way. This, perhaps, is the way forward.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.