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Paris Perspective #40: The collapse of French influence in West Africa – Georja Calvin-Smith

This edition of Paris Perspective focuses on the concept of Françafrique and the collapse of French influence in its former colonies. What were the catalysts for successive coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger and Gabon over the past three years?

The domino effect of the fall of Sahel states to military juntas over the past three years is particularly alarming from a French perspective.

The takeovers essentially followed the same pattern: France is condemned as an economic predator, military cooperation in the fight against jihadists is suspended, defense agreements with Paris are broken and French media like RFI and France 24 are closed.

Almost identical scenes played out at French embassies and military bases, with demonstrators denouncing French neocolonialism and calling for the withdrawal of French troops. Russian flags were clearly visible in the crowd.

Paris insists that the former Françafrique This method of interference in African affairs is “long dead”. If this is true, where does anti-French sentiment come from?

The legacy of “Françafrique”

To understand the present, one must examine the direct influence of the French colonial administration on African countries, which metamorphosed into an infamous old boys’ political club in the aftermath of independence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Georja Calvin-Smith, producer and presenter of France 24’s flagship political magazine, “Eye on Africa”, readily recognizes that the concept of Françafrique in the immediately postcolonial period was born essentially from the “right to law” of the former leaders.

“I think Françafrique From an African perspective, this can best be characterized as “being made dirty” – being exploited. This does not necessarily mean that there were no African actors within the relationship who did not benefit from it, but they were generally at the top of the social hierarchy… depending on which country we are talking about.” , she declared, tells Paris Perspective.

Calvin-Smith points out that postcolonial actors were essentially intermediaries between Paris and African capitals, either helping to obtain permanent mining rights at rock-bottom prices or adjusting political ambitions to benefit France.

“They are seen as working with the former colonial power,” she explains, “to the detriment of the indigenous population.”

“Ultimately, for decades, the French and European economies have been sustained by the use of and reliance on African resources,” in association with outspoken African leaders, she says.

Although French President Emmanuel Macron has been one of the most progressive French leaders in his attempt to assuage some of the resentment over the legacy of FrançafriqueCalvin-Smith says it doesn’t matter: “You can say it doesn’t exist, but those relationships still exist.”

Could the “Big Men” be next?

Rejection of “paternalism”

From the beginning, Françafrique defined the postcolonial era. African resources flowed into French coffers, in exchange for a certain degree of political and financial stability in the newly independent nations.

“And that’s the problem,” the France 24 journalist continues, “because even if we try to create a binary situation as to who got the most out of it, there have been certain developments in postcolonialism that can be measured as being better than others.

“This is why there is resentment. As much as we talk about political, sociological, even economic models, we forget that there are real people at the heart of it all.”

If people feel demeaned, sidelined and undermined by a paternalistic state, this will likely shape their opinions.

The forgotten generations

However, France’s role in “leading” African states during the years of independence appears to have been roundly rejected by a generation that accepts new political realities and feels neglected.

A new generation of Africans has emerged, one with access to information – and misinformation – in equal measure.

“By ignoring young people, if you ignore the investment and the intention to create the institutions necessary for a society to function, then – by definition – you are ignoring young people like everyone else,” Calvin-Smith points out.

It’s also important to remember that coups in West Africa are not all the same, she says, but rather shaped by different political and economic contexts.

“This is not to say that the resentment of these populations cannot be exploited by actors who take advantage of this very valid resentment towards France – or these very valid concerns about security, or the lack of opportunities – for their own political gains or simply to gain power.

“When we look at many of these countries – they are among the poorest in the world – but also the richest in terms of resources. This disparity does not go unnoticed,” she insists.

The Russian Connection

ECOWAS and the coup manual

A common point between the coups is that “none of these countries have returned to democracy since 2020”, points out Calvin-Smith ironically.

A trend has emerged, she observes: “Take power quickly, watch your back. When it comes to the international community, engage in discussions. Say you’re going to hold elections, then postpone them.”

For its part, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has invariably reacted with sanctions, exclusions or, in some cases, the threat of military intervention to ensure a return to the democratic process. .

Whatever the political outcome and the transition of former French colonies to democracy, France has seen its influence and credibility seriously damaged by the seismic events that have swept across its traditional stomping ground over the past three years.

And all this under the supervision of President Macron.

Can we hope that France and French diplomacy will regain a foothold in French-speaking Africa? Will the scope of French influence in the former colonies ever be the same?

For Georja Calvin-Smith, it’s “no”. This page of history has definitely been turned.

Watch the full video here.

Written, produced and presented by David Coffey.

Recorded by Hadrien Touraud and Erwan Rome

Full interview: Françafrique and the collapse of French influence in West Africa – Georja Calvin-Smith

Georja Calvin-Smith is the producer and presenter of France 24’s political magazine “Eye on Africa”.


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