African Times 23 January 2017
In recent history, few world leaders have been as unpopular as France’s François Hollande. Rising unemployment, tabloid scandals, unpopular legal reforms, and a faltering economy have all led the President to confirm that he won’t stand for re-election in 2017. While Hollande’s presidency has been ridiculed in France, his legacy is likely to be more forgiving with regard to his foreign policy interventions in Africa.
Looking back, however, have Hollande’s actions in Africa brought more stability to the region? Have they fundamentally managed to change the much-maligned ‘Françafrique’, the system of overseeing the affairs of former French colonies?
From Mali to the Central African Republic
The 27th France-Africa Summit, which took place in mid-January, marked Hollande’s final chance to showcase his foreign policy legacy. It was no surprise that the summit was hosted in the Malian city of Bamako – the location of Hollande’s first serious foreign policy intervention. In fact, Hollande insisted it be held there.
Bamako is where Hollande launched Operation Serval in January 2013. After jihadists allied to Tuareg rebels had taken control of the north of Mali, the French president sent in the French military to recapture control of the region. French and Malian forces retook the cities of Timbuktu and Kidal in order to prevent the country from becoming a ‘terrorist state’. With the vast majority of Malians backing the French intervention, the operation was considered a success – a rarity for Western-backed interventions in Africa or the Middle East.
Considering Hollande’s soft-spoken approach to foreign policy in his election campaign, the intervention in Mali came as something of a surprise, especially since it was coming from a socialist. Few expected Hollande to be using language like “I took the necessary steps and we intervened militarily, and what we did there in terms of fighting and logistics saved not only Mali but, undoubtedly, the whole of west Africa” when he was elected to the role.
Hollande’s subsequent interventions have been many and varied. They include 2013 action in the Central African Republic (CAR) after a rebel coalition overthrew the government, and 2014’s Operation Barkhane, headquartered in Chad, tasked with tackling counter-terrorism in the Sahel region.
Moreover, Hollande was very different to his predecessor on one key matter. While Sarkozy had launched military attacks in both Libya and Côte d’Ivoire that were not sanctioned internationally, Hollande was careful to secure both United Nations and African Union approval and support for France’s military interventions in Mali and the CAR before taking action.
But while Hollande was able to strengthen France’s military presence and influence in Western and Central Africa, this was never the original plan. Indeed, at the start of his term, the French government wanted to move its focus to the east of Africa and break out from the Françafrique mold. As Paris saw it, it was the East African countries that had more vibrant and growing economies. Hollande felt he had a chance to reinvent France’s relationship with the continent and boost its trade ties.
At the end of his term, France has actually lost ground to other powers in economic terms. In 2005, France had 8.7% of trade with Africa, versus China’s 6.5% share. By 2015, the tables were turned: Beijing has locked in 17.6%, while France’s share declined to a paltry 5.6%. The truth is that French business has failed to expand from its base in the Francophone countries and expand into larger markets, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia.
Missed opportunities in Djibouti and beyond
France also failed to make the most of its historic presence in East Africa, most notably in the small but tactically important country of Djibouti. A tiny market on its own, the former French colony nonetheless acts as a springboard for landlocked Ethiopia and its 94 million people thanks to its port. Before France rebalanced its forces following its intervention in Mali, Djibouti remained the site of the largest concentration of French forces in Africa.
This is not entirely Hollande’s fault. After the United States began its war on terrorism in 2001, France was sidelined and Djibouti turned to the Americans as their preferred partner. In 2009, a $14 million US government-funded naval pier in the small port city of Obock was completed. At the time, then-Djiboutian Prime Minister Dileita Mohamed Dileita called it the “most significant program of its kind ever undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Now, even the US has been usurped in the country. Renovations to the pier project are well under way, this time led by the Chinese who have taken advantage of Djibouti’s position as a way of gaining access to Ethiopia. Indeed, Beijing has pounced on the opportunity of tapping into an undervalued but high growth market, which is slated to become Africa’s largest economy by 2050. With deep pockets and loose morals, Beijing managed to buy its way into Djibouti by playing on the intrinsically corrupt nature of its President, Ismail Omar Guelleh. Guelleh was more than eager to play along, in exchange for billions in investments and infrastructure projects. China is even opening a naval base in the country, a move that is bound to spark the ire of Washington and its petulant President Trump, who has repeatedly threatened to cut off aid and military support to Africa and fair-weather allies.
With the two great powers competing over their positions in the country, France’s remaining influence remains minimal at best. With the transition from American to Chinese predominance in Djibouti, France’s one natural entry point for establishing a commercial foothold on Africa’s east coast has exited its orbit for good. This, it seems, puts Hollande’s East African dreams to bed.
Challenges for future French President
While he may have scored some successes, France’s president will ultimately need to look back on a mixed legacy in Africa. For all his reminders that the interventions in Mali and the CAR were broadly successful and helped tame the jihadist threat, Hollande’s focus on security rather than political issues left many countries as unstable as ever. Whoever replaces him as president this year, France’s challenges in Africa will remain daunting. It is not just a matter of maintaining a military presence on the continent: France must find a way to craft a sustainable and mutually beneficial partnership with Africa. Whatever the obstacles, Africa’s young populations and growing economies remain critical to France’s future.