In January, France sent 4,000 troops to Mali in a bid to combat rebel fighters who, after seizing control of the country’s north, threatened to invade the capital city of Bamako.
F rancois Hollande, the French president, justified the intervention by stressing his country’s commitment to its former West African colony. “France will remain with you as long as it is necessary,” he told a press conference.
For his part, Dioncounda Traore, the interim Malian president, expressed his gratitude, calling Hollande a “brother to the Malian people” and a “true friend of the whole of Africa”.
But is France pursuing a neo-colonial policy in Africa? Is it continuing Francafrique , the term coined to describe the country’s relationship with its former African colonies, in which it supported unpopular African politicians in order to advance and protect its economic interests?
In a recent visit to Dakar, Hollande declared the end of the Francafrique era, but is it really over?
This three-part series tells the story of ‘France Afrique’: a brutal and nefarious tale of corruption, massacres, dictators supported and progressive leaders murdered, weapon-smuggling, cloak-and-dagger secret services, and spectacular military operations.
Episode 1: France’s thirst for energy
The first episode of this three-part series untangles the web of political connections between France and its former African colonies.
Countries that once depended on us still ask us for help today. But why should we help these countries if it isn't worth it for us?
After independence, France still needed Africa’s natural resources, particularly its oil – and Africa needed French investment.
This dependence allowed France to position itself as the guardian of its former colonies.
In order to ensure that it could easily reap resources like oil, gas, gold and uranium, France secured stability in these African countries.
General de Gaulle, the French president from 1959 to 1969, established an Africa unit that reported directly to him.
And Jacques Foccart, an influential businessman and ally of de Gaulle, developed a network of French and African politicians, leaders and businessmen to maintain control in the former colonies.
This network, its actions and the policies it employed, became known as Francafrique .
This story reveals the lengths the former colonial power has gone to – from coups and assassinations to rigged elections and embezzlement – in order to satisfy its thirst for energy.
Episode 2: The Elf scandal
The second episode of this series reveals France’s ongoing mission to secure access to oil and maintain a firm grip over its former colonies.
There are times, you know, when policy passes before morality.
In the decades following independence, France supported the lavish lifestyles of African dictators while their people endured extreme poverty.
A complicated network of government and non-government employees laundered money through the country’s public oil company, Elf Aquitaine.
When this was revealed in 1994, it became known as the Elf scandal.
People who were involved in this network also rigged elections and orchestrated coups.
The French government even paid for one African leader to become an emperor – only to later overthrow him.
But after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the uncovering of the Elf scandal, African leaders suddenly saw the balance of power shift in their favour.
Episode 3: Turning tables
The last episode of this series outlines France’s gradual loss of power in its former colonies – some called it reverse colonisation; others called it independence.
I came to the conclusion that we were in a situation of reverse colonisation. France was being colonised by Gabon and not the other way around.
African leaders, well aware of France’s need for their countries’ resources, adopted the same manipulation tactics once used on them.
So, after supporting a war in Biafra, overthrowing several presidents, collapsing Guinea’s economy and bribing leaders to support its interests, France started to lose the control that it once exercised in Africa.
Some African leaders insisted on selecting French ministers and ambassadors. And presidents like Omar Bongo of Gabon and Mamadou Tandja of Niger realised that they could leverage their natural resources to sway French decision-making.
Bongo threatened to sign drilling contracts with the Americans when Elf temporarily closed its Port-Gentil wells. And Tandja claimed he would hand over control of Niger’s largest uranium mine to the Chinese if France refused to agree to an increase in the price of uranium.
Protests against France escalated to violence in several countries.
Although France’s control over its former colonies had weakened, the colonies still needed French investors – and this reliance allows some networks to persist today.