Dr Lansine Kaba, a leading historian on Africa, discusses the status of French-African relations today.
In January 2013, France sent a few thousand troops to Mali in a bid to combat rebel fighters who had seized control of the north of the country and were threatening to advance on the capital.
The intervention shed light on some of France’s historical relationships with its former colonies. But what do the country’s historic ties with Africa say about its recent political moves?
Dr Lansine Kaba is a distinguished scholar, writer and professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. He is the recipient of the distinguished Melville J. Herskovits Prize for best work in English in African Studies.
Al Jazeera’s Heather Roy spoke to this leading historian on Africa about the France-Africa connection and what role, if any, this relationship plays today.
Al Jazeera: What does the term ‘Francafrique’ mean?
Lansine Kaba: Francafrique involves a complex web of relations that have made France a major player in the affairs of many African countries and even of the African Union. Through the networks of this largely “opaque conglomerate”, France, a founding member of the UN Security Council and the World Bank, can boast a significant global influence that extends far beyond the French-speaking states.
The term Francafrique suggests several facts and ideas, ranging from the politics of cordial exchange and cooperation to that of covert actions and violent military intervention that the French have been known for perpetrating in different parts of Africa since the 1960s.
This tradition of blatant intervention belongs to the history of French colonisation of Africa, including North Africa. It also follows the extension of French influence over the former Belgian, Portuguese and Spanish colonies. Such actions have secured France a presence that many observers view as formidable, and even sometimes frightening in terms of international law. The French have often dealt with their former colonies in a manner conspicuously different from the British who, too, controlled a large colonial empire in Africa.
It involves an effective style of diplomacy that is not necessarily staffed with well-seasoned accredited diplomats, but energetic and daring doers. Francafrique builds relations that rely on close personal connections woven between the French leadership (the president and his close aides) and individual African leaders who depended on French assistance and security forces. Francafrique excelled in channelling funds to electoral campaigns of some prominent French politicians too.
AJ: Jacques Foccart is often called the architect of Francafrique. Who was Foccart? And what role did he play in French-African relations after independence?
LK: He was the mastermind of the behind-the-scenes risky and questionable adventures that led Francafrique networks (of officers, administrators, ambassadors and other agents) to perpetuate French influence in Tropical Africa and Morocco. The assistant for African and Malagasy affairs, this was his official title, received the funds that his duties required. In fact he controlled the powerful Secretariat for Cooperation that reported not to the minister of foreign affairs but the president. Foccart freely appointed or dismissed agents of his networks and distributed funds for development overseas. His office and his Françafrique politics denote extra-legal and extra-constitutional practices that were inconsistent with democratic principles.
The networks served each French president from General Charles de Gaulle to Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The Socialist Mitterrand vilified the term and changed the leadership of the African bureau, but not its goals. Foccart returned as President Chirac’s top adviser for African affairs before dying in 1997. His death, however, did not ‘toll the bell’ for Francafrique, as the events of early January 2013 in Mali demonstrated.
AJ: How has such a secret network retained so much power for so long?
LK: Francafrique is neither an institution nor an agency of the French Republic. But the ideal that it upholds as a secret body has long permeated the whole French power structure. From its incipience at the dawn of the regime of de Gaulle in 1958 to the French intervention in Mali in early 2013, Francafrique has operated in secrecy. It may be compared to the CIA in the US, though its mission and scope are narrower. Its goal, consistent from 1960 to 2013, has been to promote and protect French interests in Africa by all means necessary.
These means include a modus operandi that uses all the paraphernalia of information gathering, technical and military assistance, including coups, to strengthen French objectives and defend France’s allies in Africa. Francafrique has also encouraged investments in the extraction of lucrative African mineral resources like oil, gas and other strategic resources (uranium) that have contributed to France’s military and technological advance. The intelligence capacity and swift organisational ability of the leadership and networks of Francafrique, both in France and abroad, has proved most beneficial to some African rulers and French leaders alike.
AJ: In January 2013, France sent 4,000 troops to Mali. Can you explain the recent conflict in Mali? How did the French come to intervene in the country?
LK: Mali used to receive little attention in world news until it captured the headlines in early 2013. It had just suffered a massive incursion by well-armed Muslim combatants, including Tuareg separatists and their Arab allies of various origins keen on establishing an Islamic state. The contingents, bolstered by the fall of [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi and awash with funds and weapons, swiftly entered northern Mali. They occupied the Malian garrison towns near the Algerian borders, and conquered the historic cities of Timbuktu and Gao on the Niger.
The invasion was viewed as an al-Qaeda-led threat that could affect the security of the Maghreb and Western Europe. The Sharia-based and Afghan-type of state in the Sahara that the invaders began to implement was deemed unacceptable. Such a state, it was thought, could encourage lawlessness and the risks of European hostage seizing. It also represented a visible menace to the vital Saharan oil and gas production activity needed in the Mediterranean economy. Stability appeared indispensable in the region, the UN Security Council and ECOWAS recognised. French politicians, by and large, concurred with this concern and the importance of Mali in their colonial hagiography.
AJ: Some critics speculate that France’s intervention is about something more than restoring order to the region. Given the historical relations between France and its former colonies, why do you think France chose to intervene in Mali?
LK: Now, as was well known, French troops had frequently intervened in Africa to restore peace. Starting in 1969, Mali and France maintained close relations with numerous ministerial visits and several official state visits. The relations were based in part on the politics of common language, and other factors. Bamako helped in negotiating the release of French hostages held by Muslim extremists in the Sahara, and Paris assisted Mali in different manners.
Yet one still wonders why France, a former coloniser, launched almost alone an air and ground campaign against the Muslim insurgents. Did such operations rest on ‘classic’ colonial motivation for resources, greed and hegemony? Unlike Gabon or Cote d’Ivoire, Mali is not known for its wealth. But Mali highly matters in terms of strategy and defence of the European Mediterranean. Its strategic position makes it a valuable territory to defend against Jihadist threats. This thought might explain President [Francois] Hollande’s bold move, once Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, called for immediate French help.
AJ: How likely is it that the policy of Francafrique persists in current political relations between France and its former colonies, like Mali, today?
LK: The French intervention in Mali in January 2013 belongs to the category of events that historians have yet to scrutinise. It is therefore difficult to assess it. Undoubtedly it testifies to the survival of the idea of Francafrique and to the attachment of it to the image of a nation capable of protecting its own interests and honouring its commitments to the right of existence of its allies in accordance with international law. Mali, an important part of French West Africa, holds a strong image in the historiography of French colonial expansion. But, colonialism is now considered outdated.
Yet the recent intervention, according to some observers, may suggest the rebirth of colonialism and jingoism. The issue is whether France truly ended its colonial habits. The matter, rather contentious, deserves an open and dispassionate analysis rooted in history and current international relations.
Watch more on Al Jazeera’s special series The French African Connection