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Anti-french Sentiment in West Africa - A Reflection of the Authoritarian Confrontation With the "Collective West"

Anti-french Sentiment in West Africa - A Reflection of the Authoritarian Confrontation With the
 Jonathan Guiffard
Senior Fellow - Defense and Africa

Examples of deeply rooted anti-French sentiment abound in West Africa. From the October 2022 attacks on the French Embassy in Ouagadougou and the French Institute in Bobo-Dioulasso to regular demonstrations in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger protesting France's presence in the region, or from the ransacking of French-owned businesses in Dakar in March 2021 to the countless invectives spouted at French politicians, there is a great deal of hostility being felt by most of the general public which rejects all forms of French presence (military above all, but diplomatic and economic as well). The reality is more complicated than this over-simplification that has been amply discussed on both continents.

It is true that not a week can go by anymore without some form of aggression or power struggle with French entities, such as Burkina Faso's order on December 3, 2022, to suspend the broadcast of France's RFI radio or, on the same day, Mali's ban on the activities of NGOs funded by France. In return, French authorities coordinated a strong response at the level of public diplomacy and influence (now considered a strategic function in France's 2022 National Strategic Review).

On such a political and intangible subject, it is rather difficult to paint an accurate picture of the phenomenon's reality. France's historical relations with West Africa positions it on the front lines opposite populations that are either experiencing a sharp deterioration in security or significant economic and development inequalities. Its central political and economic presence makes France a bogeyman. The country's historical mistakes render it vulnerable to attacks and its adversaries are well aware of this weakness.

However, the phenomenon conceals two important realities:

  • Events are magnified by local media and social networks which misrepresent the phenomenon’s importance to a public that is partly absent from the debates and more concerned with its own survival (in the rural parts of the Sahel). Political debates on the role of France and the West end up crisscrossing through West African societies, but the media tug-of-war is discussed first and foremost in capitals around the region and fails to depict the exact reality of the rejection by the public;

  • These attacks on France in West Africa reflect the advances made by a broader authoritarian movement, driven partly by Russia, that challenges democracy and democracy’s advocates.

France's historical relations with West Africa positions it on the front lines opposite populations that are either experiencing a sharp deterioration in security.

France's fragile position

For political attacks to take hold in the long term, fertile ground is required. France carries several burdens in West Africa that weigh on its ability to defend itself against hostile entrepreneurs of influence

  • Its colonial past. In spite of a subtle but real debate, academic research and ongoing memory work on reconstructing the memory and cultural heritage of African countries, France's colonial history in West Africa positions it as the number one imperial power, facilitating its instrumentalization. All the more so given the decolonial school of thought that has emerged since the start of the century that aims to study and untangle the long-term legacies of colonization of all types (political, economic, etc.). Instrumentalization by political activists, who leverage colonialism as the sole explanation for the current difficulties of many African countries, fans the flames of tensions. This positioning serves first and foremost a political agenda;

  • The deterioration in security and the role of Barkhane. The withdrawal of French troops from Operation Barkhane in Mali on August 15, 2022, and the absence of Malian Armed Forces on the ground in the north of the country have already set off renewed fighting between jihadist groups. The security situation proceeded to plunge into a tailspin, clearly showing that while Operation Barkhane did not bring peace, it went a long way toward challenging jihadist threats. Even so, and in spite of the numerous achievements in counter-terrorism, local populations are scapegoating France for the deterioration they are witnessing on the ground. Through the lens of the public, France is responsible by virtue of its fantasized military power and presence for a decade, but it forgets that the operation’s initial objective was to protect Bamako and give the political class time to formulate a plan and restore peace;

  • The political reflexes of "Françafrique". French credibility is undermined by a lack of consistency between certain political stances and the promotion of European values like liberal democracy and the rule of law. It also suffers from political stances deemed incoherent and dubbed as a "double standard", defending certain autocracies and denying democratic backsliding. Promoting a policy that is consistent with stated values is critical, even though its approach should be reconsidered to make room for more pragmatism in cooperation efforts. Such a shift is all the more important given that the reality of daily and current diplomacy with African partners no longer corresponds to the fantasies of post-colonial "Françafrique" that has been loudly denounced by France's adversaries;

  • Visa restrictions and the debate on immigration. The French-speaking public (mostly young people) is frustrated by French and European migration policies (and the internal political debates that they trigger), which they view as an unfair roadblock to receiving a quality education and renewing ties between France and West Africa. By way of reminder, and contrary to a widespread but false representation, sub-Saharan populations (West African ones in particular) are among those that migrate the least to Europe. But the heated debates that are gaining momentum in France, and closely monitored in Francophone Africa, give the impression of latent and transversal racism. Against this backdrop, how can anyone be blamed for seeing France as highly disrespectful of Africans and only present on the continent to prey?

  • The significant decrease in technical cooperation. The previous phenomenon is reinforced by the collapse of French technical cooperation with several West African countries, starting in the 1990s, which is the result of political decisions that went against the grain of historical policy in previous decades (NB: assistance provided by the OECD as a whole dropped from nearly 30% in the 1970s to less than 20% in the 2000s). France is not as present at the heart of the local populations of its partner countries as it used to be, creating a vacancy that Russian, Turkish and Chinese competitors are happy to fill. Without any sense of nostalgia, France's absence automatically leads to a distancing of values and mutual understanding. Language is not enough.

France bears the full responsibility for all of these issues and still seems to have trouble engaging in self-criticism about its current practices in this region in full renewal. Yet, a healthy dose of self-criticism would make the country a more effective, humble and pragmatic partner to African states who, for the most part, remain positive toward France. Plenty of adversaries, however, are creating a political construct out of these issues and instrumentalizing them in the quest for short-term political gains. Other foreign nations have made just as many mistakes in their approach to African policy without feeling the need to call themselves into question. 

Other foreign nations have made just as many mistakes in their approach to African policy without feeling the need to call themselves into question.

In November 2022, Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum made some noteworthy statements, explaining one by one the shortcuts and weaknesses of the propaganda machine being deployed against France. In the saturated space of social media and populist rhetoric, well-justified, brave and reasonable words are few and far between. They also drive a more balanced debate by shining a spotlight on the historical responsibilities of existing Sahelian regimes in the current crisis.

The manipulation of pan-Africanism

The most visible and outspoken critics of French policy in Africa are public activists (both French and African) who claim to be pan-Africanists. Examples include Kémi Séba, Nathalie Yamb, Franklin Nyamsi, Sylvain Afoua and Maikoul Zodi. They represent a fairly diverse spectrum of activism and political stances. Some have their own voice and others work in tandem to shape their message. These activists are fierce critics of France and French foreign policy and have no problem getting their message across given that they have tens of thousands of followers on social networks and often appear on West African television shows. Some are unapologetic promoters of Russian policy and its proxies, cloaked under the guise of pan-Africanism.

The pan-African school of political thought has been the subject of complex and sophisticated debates. It first appeared in London in 1900 (First Pan-African Conference) and gathered steam after several decades of reflection on slavery and the place of Afro-descendants in society. The movement advocates for the political alignment of African nations and individuals of African descent to establish unity of voice and action. Pan-Africanism helps African nations become aware of their own weaknesses and dependencies on the Western political and economic system, in order to work toward better coordination and unity. The movement led to the creation of the African Union and the torch was carried by several African leaders during the decolonization era, notably Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.

This current of ideas has been revived in recent years in light of new political battles for equality of people and races (Black Lives Matter in the United States, decolonial and indigenous thought, etc.), but also by African intellectuals such as historians Amzat Boukari-Yabara and Achille Mbembe, economist Felwine Sarr or author Léonora Miano (many of whom keep a foot in American universities). 

African American youth, as well as young people in Africa (which makes up the vast majority of the continent's population), are receptive to this attempt to marshal codes of political and cultural emancipation. West African youth has never experienced colonization, decolonization, or the Cold War and related Third Worldism: they, therefore, have no particular history or score to settle with France. Young Africans are impressed by the countries that pursue policies to promote their region's appeal (United States, Turkey, Russia) and an overwhelming majority of them use social media (unlike their elders). They, therefore, represent a prime target for these intellectual emancipation movements, which France's adversaries have shown to be acutely aware of when conjuring up colonial and pan-African imaginations. 

This revival is even depicted positively in pop culture (such as the box office hit "Black Panther" or the literary movement of Afrofuturism led by the African diaspora).

West African youth has never experienced colonization, decolonization, or the Cold War and related Third Worldism.

Within these movements, as was already the case in the 1960s, there are currents, classified as "racialist", that proffer a more extreme vision of the issues by systematically pitting races against one another, sometimes by way of violence. This extreme and confrontational interpretation of emancipation is often fed by a very conservative vision of social order. Activist Kémi Séba's multiple political experiences (Nation of Islam, Tribu Ka and Kemite Party) corroborate this very specific vision of the world. 

Radical currents such as these, which largely exploit Afro-descendant struggles for emancipation, have had no difficulty in maintaining intellectual and political proximity with radical, nationalist or extreme right-wing figures and movements. They share the same substratum of values and view their coordination as a way to support each other against the democratic and liberal order. A concrete illustration of this convergence: In 2019, Giorgia Meloni, current President of the Italian Council of Ministers and leader of the Fratelli d'Italia party at the time, addressed the issue of the CFA franc to denounce the supposed exploitation of West Africa by France, disseminating false information and countless approximations along the way. These talking points had been leaked to Italian anti-system parties during discussions with an NGO (Urgences Panafricanistes) founded by Kémi Séba.

The strategy employed by these activists has everything to do with France, the target of their obsessions, and little to do with the situation in which African nations find themselves. In spite of their instrumentalization of pan-African ideas, they have almost nothing to do with the pan-African current of thought or the political figures who carried its torch, as the relationship between France, Europe, and African nations has objectively and deeply changed since that time. The argument is often misleading and does not hold water when it comes to its strength.

The authoritarian wave is also sweeping through West Africa, mirroring the backslide in democracy across the region

Since August 18, 2020, the date of the coup against former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Mali, four military coups have taken place in West Africa, not counting the contested takeover in Chad by Mahamat Idriss Déby, the failed coup attempt against the President of Niger and previous waves (2012 in Mali, 2014 and 2015 in Burkina Faso). While coups in the region can be explained by several factors specific to a given country's situation, they illustrate a new authoritarian and populist movement that also instrumentalizes decolonialism, pan-Africanism (in veiled fashion), revolutionary imagination (the figure of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso), and the condemnation of France and liberal democracy.

The high visibility of these coups obscures a backslide in democracy taking place in many West African nations. Internal pretexts ("Islamism", "economic conditions", "security deterioration", "intercommunal tensions", etc.) and external pretexts ("rejection of France", "submission of ECOWAS", "regional tensions", etc.) are cost-effective political tools in the very short term given the populist zeal and uncertainty surrounding the Sahelian multisectoral crisis that is spiraling throughout the region.

The catalyst for this populism and conservative relapse (in the moral sense) is the opportunistic response of a young military and political class that is settling the post-colonial legacy of proximity to France and the shy but progressive democratic advances. After the failure of a "beneficial globalization" that was not able to bring peace and prosperity to the planet, several West African political forces are following the movement initiated by Russia and China to challenge the liberal order and are using this grey area for swift political gain.

The high visibility of these coups obscures a backslide in democracy taking place in many West African nations.

Newcomers to power are not just looking to enrich themselves or divert attention away from their responsibility for structural failures (although both of these arguments are true). This groundswell illustrates a connection to the authoritarian and conservative wave that is currently, in many parts of the world, challenging the liberal democratic order (defense and promotion of human rights, political and social emancipation) born in 1945 from the ashes of German and Italian fascism, and reinforced in 1991 on the ruins of the Soviet Union. The counter-revolutions in Arab countries following the springs of 2011 and 2012, Trumpism, Bolsonarism, and exacerbated nationalism in India are all symptoms of this phenomenon.

The promotion of warrior and virile values in Mali and Burkina Faso, the strong Islamization of West African societies and elites, the lasting jihadist presence in certain social fabrics, the decade during which young people did not go to school in central and northern Mali, and the gradual restriction of women's and minority rights have all shaped a highly conservative vision of the social order.

This framework also helps understand why the "Global South" is distancing itself from the conflict in Ukraine and the defensive fight led by the West. Arguments of neutrality or accusations of double-talk by African politicians fail to convince, even though Western budgetary aid to Africa is significant and diplomatic-military interventionism is the norm rather than the exception. The argument's lack of coherence implicitly confirms this disassociation from a world order contested by revisionist powers.

A mise-en-abyme of the Russian battle against the "collective West"

Since the early 2000s, Vladimir Putin has revived the notion of blocs by using rhetoric that systematically condemns Western actions and victimization around a supposed humiliation (to the detriment of the self-determined choices of people formerly subjected to the Soviet yoke) to gradually put autocratic and conservative values at the center of his political action. This is a sincere ideological construction, not one that was simply triggered by the regime’s "ideologists" like Dugin or the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

In reality, promoting multilateralism and challenging American hegemony conceals a failed critical reading of Soviet crimes and tsarist expansionist logic that could have allowed the emergence of a modern, democratic and liberal Russian state, inoculated from the poison of imperial thought. Decision-makers in Russia have become obsessed with the fight against the "collective West", a now ubiquitous expression in Russian power discourse, depicting the United States and Europe as decadent and morally depraved. This eschatological vision intoxicates their strategic thinking.

Decision-makers in Russia have become obsessed with the fight against the "collective West", a now ubiquitous expression in Russian power discourse.

The ideological struggle carried on by the holders of political power in Russia (silovikis), by ultraconservative thinkers or by the pact between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church partly explains the revisionist strategy at work since Vladimir Putin came to power. The restoration of an imperial logic, whether by nostalgia for the Soviet Union or to update imperial concepts with Novorossiya, determines Russia's action in its former area of influence, the systematic challenging of American and European policies, and the strategic competition that has progressively taken hold around the globe.

Direct, hybrid and political aggression against Europe is being documented (digital interference campaigns, assassinations, disinformation, sabotage, etc.), even though Europeans still have difficulty observing the overall coherence of the picture.

In West Africa, this ideological confrontation is also underway. Russia’s current challenge to France does not appear to be merely a cold, pragmatic and tactical opportunity, carried by the myth of the "chess player", but the promotion of an authoritarian and global political and social model. The tools of Russian foreign action (intelligence services, diplomacy, armed forces, Russian companies, troll farms, etc.) mobilize decolonial, pan-African, conservative, warrior and virile narratives to promote authoritarian regimes that they will even protect militarily.

From the first Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in 2019, Vladimir Putin justified this necessary rapprochement by denouncing the West and in light of the Soviet Union's historical relations. The message was already clear. Economic opportunities, below the level of aid and economic cooperation with the West and China, could not explain how Russia's vision penetrated the circle of West African elites. In October 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reminded the second "Russia-Africa" forum at the Moscow State Institute on International Relations that: "We are united by the rejection of the so-called ‘rules-based order’ that the former colonial powers are imposing on the world."

While France, Europe and the United States are right to carry out wholesome self-criticism and remain some of the most important donors to the continent, this demonstration implies that the competition and the challenging of revisionist powers be pursued in the political and ideological arena. The Russian and Chinese trap set for the West is to disguise an ideological confrontation as a supposed pragmatic rationality that would be akin to realpolitik.

The instrumentalization of Western mistakes by these revisionist powers is systematic and does not care the least about ensuring consistency. 

The instrumentalization of Western mistakes by these revisionist powers is systematic and does not care the least about ensuring consistency. The United States has seized on this issue and the Department of State's remarks (in French) denouncing the malign influence of Russia and its entrepreneurs of influence in West Africa are a helpful step in the right direction.

This confrontation of models is all the more important in West Africa because the information space is less regulated than in Europe, both legally, with a lack of mechanisms to fight disinformation, and in terms of the reality of exchanges between large platforms and African leaders, the latter having difficulty influencing the governance of internet giants.

France should not only throw itself into the arena of power struggles and condemnation of disinformation, but promote its model, highlight the inconsistencies and turpitudes of revisionist regimes, and act politically in accordance with this value model. It is not a matter of lecturing or imposing democratic conditionalities for providing assistance. It is a matter of convincing people that its model and values are legitimate. Convincing implies demonstrating and promoting, not criticizing those we seek to rally to the emancipating and stabilizing project of democracy. Convincing also, and above all, requires the resumption of exchanges (visa, business), a substantial policy of economic and academic cooperation, and a more robust development policy that meets the direct needs of the people, while allowing to structure and consolidate the presence of the government.

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