Mali is the most striking example of an African country where France went from a happy symbiosis to a scandalous divorce in just ten years. When then-President François Hollande and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian launched Operation Serval in 2013, they did so at the request of Bamako, which feared an offensive by jihadists from regional groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The Malians greeted the French military with flowers. The operation grew the following year, was named "Barkhane," and was supposed to protect five countries in the Sahel region from radical Islamists. Later, the French were joined (in smaller numbers) by the British, Estonians, Danes, Swedes, and Czechs.
A few years later, the mood changed. The French are no longer called a partner but an "occupying force," and the number of anti-French protests in Mali is growing. There are several reasons for this: the unhealed scars of colonial history, active Russian propaganda, and the behavior of France itself. Paris made many mistakes that damaged its reputation in Africa and changed the opinion of the French themselves about the appropriateness of Operation Barkhane.
Fifty-eight soldiers from France were killed in combat missions. In particular, in 2019, the country was shocked by the collision of two helicopters due to poor internal coordination, which led to the loss of 13 French soldiers. Such casualties are unacceptable to Paris: the French go to the Sahel primarily to train the African military and organize a local defense system.
The attitude of the local population towards the French is also deteriorating. In 2021, the French military launched an air strike on the village of Bunti, killing 19 civilians celebrating a wedding. The strike was supposed to target a jihadist base. Paris insisted that it did not result in civilian casualties for several months until an official UN report proved otherwise. The French concealment of the truth and denial of responsibility reminds Malians of the painful past — this is how France, the colonizer, behaved.
Moscow's meddling in Mali
The situation deteriorated catastrophically with two military coups in 2020 and 2021, which brought a junta to power and the arrest of pro-French President Keita. In December 2021, Macron canceled a visit to Mali, where he was supposed to celebrate Christmas with the French military, as he had done in previous years in Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, and on the Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier off the coast of Egypt.
"You're not welcome here!", "France, get out!", "Putin, help us!"
At the time, the French leader cited pandemic and sanitary restrictions but later admitted his unwillingness to see representatives of the junta: "We cannot remain militarily linked to the authorities of a country whose strategy and hidden goals we do not share."
These statements and others from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do not sit well with Bamako, which expelled the French ambassador in early 2022. In November of the same year, Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane, and in August, the last French troops left the country.
The divorce took on a concrete diplomatic form. "You're not welcome here!", "France, get out!", "Putin, help us!" Malians chant at numerous protests, sometimes with portraits of the Russian president. The emergence of Russian symbols at a time of crisis in relations with France is no accident: first, Moscow has been feeding anti-Western sentiment in Africa since 2019.
And second, at that time, the Wagner group was already active in Mali, waiting for the French to leave, occupying the former French military base in Menaka. Many questions remain about their role in the coup in the country.
While Macron does not want to play a double game and prefers to lose influence rather than cooperate with the junta, the new Malian government quickly finds a common language with Wagner. "The junta believes that Wagner can help them stay in power. The fight against terrorism is out of the question," the French president said.
Wagner's second stop: Burkina Faso
After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, the propaganda channels Russia Today and Sputnik were banned in the EU. However, they still broadcast freely in French-speaking Africa and have excellent ratings. Sputnik even changed the name of its former French website to Sputnik Afrique. The propaganda is also spreading through social media.
In a July 2021 report, the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Military School (IRSEM) wrote about Russia's "information ecosystem" in Africa, thousands of sites and accounts whose sole purpose is to discredit the West and remind locals of the colonialist ambitions of European countries. Slow but steady brainwashing is yielding results, and in addition to Mali, Burkina Faso is falling under Russian influence.
Niger and Chad remain the last French bastions in the Sahel.
In 2017, newly elected President Macron spoke to the audience at the University of Ouagadougou about education, values, the end of the "old world," and the restoration of Franco-African relations. It seemed like a new page in the cooperation between the two countries. At the time, Burkina Faso was ruled by a Francophile, Rock Marc Christian Kabore. Following the Malian scenario, he was ousted in a military coup five years later. The coup in Burkina Faso pleased the leader of Wagner, Prigozhin, who declared a "new era of decolonization."
There is currently no direct evidence of Wagner's interference in the Mali and Burkina Faso coups, and the leader of the Burkina Faso junta even joked on TV: "I heard that Wagner has come to Ouagadougou. I ask, where are they?"
According to the Paris-based magazine Jeune Afrique, Russian mercenaries were spotted at an airport near Ouagadougou late last year. In January, as if by a strange coincidence, the Burkinabé junta gave France 30 days for the last French military to leave the country, while anti-French protests with Russian flags only intensified the controversy. Paris complied with the request. The second Franco-African divorce came into force.
Niger and Chad remain the last French bastions in the Sahel. Is it any wonder that anti-French protests are also occurring in both countries? The military base in Niamey is the most important in the region. It has 2,000 French soldiers, whose official goal is to guard the border between Niger and Mali and whose unofficial goal is to keep the uranium deposits safe, providing 15% of the resource for French nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, the French military operations control center is based in Chad. But for how long?
French soft power
Another reason for the shift in focus from Africa is that, unlike Hollande, Macron has included the Indo-Pacific region in France's military and geopolitical priorities, but the United States and China struggle to influence that region also.
Paris has deployed 7,000 troops and seeks to increase this number. In general, from the very beginning of his mandate, Macron set out to change the era of a protectorate to a generation of partnership with former African colonies, as evidenced by the abolition of the West African franc, the common currency of eight West African countries, which was an apparent relic of colonialism.
The gradual reduction of the military presence was laid down in the Barkhane program and also suited Macron, who at the time underestimated the risk of Wagner's growing influence because he was too concerned with restoring confidence in France among African states.
One of the manifestations of this soft power was the work with historical baggage and the long-awaited recognition of Paris's role and political responsibility for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which claimed 800,000 lives. Macron, however, continues to insist that France was not an "accomplice" to the crime but understands the need to recognize the mistakes of the past. And to repay debts.
The French president has initiated the return of artifacts and works of art looted in colonial times to Benin and Côte d'Ivoire, following the example of Germany, which last year agreed to return Niger the cultural property of the colonial era stolen by the British.
Opening of an educational center in Tanzania on Feb. 23
ChenMingjian_CN via Twitter
Africa's shifting focus
But all these significant initiatives do not help France's ranking: according to a survey conducted by the African Investors Council in 2022, opinion leaders on the continent rank France sixth in terms of attractiveness, while the United States, Canada, Germany, China, and Britain hold the top five spots, and Russia is breathing down their necks from ninth place. In the same survey, China comes out on top when respondents are asked about the "most beneficial partnership for Africa." This is another risk that Paris underestimated.
France is losing on all fronts, and Macron's tour looks like a last-ditch attempt to save face.
China also knows about soft power: last year, China invested $40 million to open an educational center in Tanzania to train "future leaders of all Africa." Over the past 30 years, the volume of trade between the African continent and China has grown from €2 to €282 billion, four times more than between the United States and Africa. As for military ambitions, since 2017, China's first military base on the continent has been operating in Djibouti.
The Chinese are stronger than France in soft politics and more attractive economically to Africa. At the same time, the Russians are better than the French at meeting the military junta's need for protection.
France is losing on all fronts, and Macron's tour of Central Africa, which began in the spring, looks like a last-ditch attempt to save face.
Recently, the French president visited Gabon (where France has one base with 350 soldiers), the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. In a speech on the eve of his departure from Paris, Macron said that his main goal is to move from the paradigm of Francafrica to the France-Africa partnership.
Paris is trying its best to save its reputation in the part of the continent that has not yet been affected by anti-French sentiment. Still, no amount of speeches will change the fact that Africa's focus is shifting eastward from Europe.