The French Empire lives. After World War 2 it had seemed that Europe’s Imperial age would finally be laid to rest after death by a thousand papercuts. New empires would come to the fore, and these empires would maintain official anti-imperialist policies, preferring to liberate rather than conquer. Most colonial empires went down with a bang, and it seemed that that was the case with France as well. A gruelling reconquest of French Indochina, more than 80 percent of which was financed by the anti-imperialist US, ended in disaster after the long and torturous Battle of Dien Bien Phu, where the French presented their Napoleonic military genius with such daring moves like positioning troops in a valley to be bombed to smithereens from the Vietnamese high ground.
With the Geneva Accords signed and African decolonization being in full swing into the 50s, especially after Algeria forcefully tore away, it seemed that France would finally retreat into the shadows and settle for Parisian cafes and the beaches of the Cote D’Azur, rather than the jungles of Vietnam and the coasts of the Cote D’Ivoire. However, the Empire adapted. It would not die, not if le General had anything to say about it. After all, “France without its greatness is not France.” The Empire would learn from the new anti-imperialist empires, and maintain its empire in this new world of oxymorons.
The tips of the Iceberg
Not all of the Empire is in the shadows. If one looks at the map today, one can still see the empire peeking through the waters, the little tips of the icebergs. To find France’s longest border one must look beyond the Hexagon of Metropolitan France, as bordering Brazil is French Guiana, a territory of nearly three hundred thousand French and EU Citizens in Latin America. The Empire also maintains a slice of Antarctica, and a series of Islands in the Indian Ocean which allow it to maintain a certain military and scientific presence, whilst in the case of Réunion, even a territory to kidnap children to boost France’s declining rural population. France also holds a series of Islands in the Atlantic, and Pacific, where the Empire’s holdings in French Polynesia give the French a water territory larger than the entire EU, and a large territory for nuclear tests. But these little tips do not even begin to show the mass of the devastating iceberg.
The empire’s largest territory, the one that cannot be found on the political map, is Africa. Though former French colonies maintained under bloody subordination were promised freedom by de Gaulle, who had exclaimed that he would never forget the efforts which allowed France to survive the Blitzkrieg, freedom never came. The empire simply adapted, changing its approach any time that the world caught on to their colonial authority, pretending to finally be leaving each time discontent brewed.
Before sinking the Titanic, one must define what a colonial empire is. Certainly, there are many types, from the direct authority of the Portuguese to the economically and culturally adaptable Dutch East India Company, to the private murder jungles of King Leopold II, and to the blatant subjugation and randomised delineations of well…all European Empires. But a shared characteristic would be political, economic and military control. France has all three in its independent and decolonised colonies.
France maintains a strong political grip on its former African colonies. This was firstly done by instituting presidential, rather than parliamentary, republics in the newly independent states, as France would thus be able to concentrate power in one head of state. These heads were effectively French Viceroys hidden behind the semblance of Sub-Saharan Africans, and this is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that Felix Gaillard’s 1957 French Government had a cabinet that contained three future presidents of three different Sub Saharan African states. Most of these African leaders to this day are French-educated, or at the very least have personal relations with the heart of the empire.
But it was not merely the installation of Pro-French leaders which ensured France’s political authority in its former colonies. By concentrating power in a tight group, France could then easily exert influence on the entire government through well-placed advisers to the African elites. An extreme example of this practice would be the government of President Bongo of Gabon, whose advisers and secretary were French, whilst the French ambassador was allowed to participate in cabinet meetings he viewed as of interest to France. It must also be acknowledged that this infiltration of government was also made possible by the fact that the former colonies were split into reasonably small states which could be easily centralised and controlled.
Until now this appears like textbook colonialism; divide, conquer, and concentrate power in a king who would share your interests because you both gave him power and whisper in his ear. But there is more to it. Tamar Golan in his lecture titled, “A Certain Mystery,” notes that French paternalism penetrated Sub Saharan Africa deeper, by creating a sense of belonging in a part of the world that felt like abandoned orphans. Perhaps the most effective tool of French neo-colonialism was the image de Gaulle created of France, as a father figure who could ensure security and wanted his children to succeed.
But what were the interests which instigated France’s tight political grip? As always the answer is economic, for perhaps the biggest hallmark of 21st-century French colonialism is the unimaginably strong economic authority France exerts on the continent. Once more, it all began at a time of decolonization.
Post-war France consolidated its colonial currencies into the franc for African colonies and franc for pacific colonies, both to ensure that colonial currencies did not devalue as the franc would in line with the Bretton Woods Agreement which fixed the franc to the dollar, but also to facilitate exports to help rebuild post-war France. As British colonies tore away violently, and France witnessed its own violent uprisings, French authorities understood that their colonial economic authority would have to adapt to the new world where imperial possessions were “independent”. Hence, France introduced the Colonies Français d’Afrique (CFA, later cleverly renamed Communauté Financière d’Afrique). This monetary union was separated into two currencies, broadly reflecting French Colonial administrative division, with the West African franc being used in Mali, Niger, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, and Guinea-Bissou, and the Central African Franc, being used in the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Chad. The currencies are used by around 147.5 million people.
Again, the idea behind the monetary union was to create within the newly independent African states a certain sense of security. They would gain a stable currency, a certain level of community between members, and the prestige of a currency guaranteed and overseen by France. But what was the cost of this deal with the devil? The cost was a currency guaranteed and overseen by France, and over half a century more colonialism.
The principles on which this community is based include, a variable fixed parity against the euro and guaranteed convertibility into the euro by France, each African central bank holding an operations account in the French Treasury, the mobility of capital between the two CFA zones and France, and the sharing of foreign exchange reserves. The currency is issued by the two central banks in Africa, the BCEAO and BCEAEC, which were dominated by France initially and up until the 70s. However, French control is most blatantly exerted not through the CFA’s institutions but through the French Treasury itself.
Each of the CFA member states had to deposit 65% of their foreign currency reserves, (since lowered to 50%) in an operations account in the French Treasury and another 20% for financial liabilities. This operations account was, and still is, a powerful weapon for maintaining French control over Africa, as it allows France to decide the external value of the CFA currencies, and consequently gives France control over the international economic, financial, monetary, and trade policies of its former colonies. Furthermore, where or how these foreign exchange reserves are invested was, and still is, not known by the African states which deposited it, whilst France invested that money wherever and whenever it pleased, including to subsidise its own national budget. The most farcical use of this money however is when interest rates are granted back to the Sub-Saharan African states in the form of French Development Aid attached to conditions of buying French products.
The CFA countries cannot devaluate or reevaluate their currencies. In fact, in 1994 France even unilaterally announced a sudden devaluation of the CFA Franc to promote exports, to the surprise of the African leaders whose countries used the currency. Likewise, the CFA’s fixed parity with the then franc (now euro) has kept the currency overvalued, and thus ensured that the African community has fixed parity with poverty. With this lack of control on exchange rates, the CFA member states cannot promote exports of raw materials to anywhere else apart from France with which it holds fixed parity. On the other hand, this high value establishes a market for French goods which could cheaply be exported to the CFA, and which most of the CFA cannot afford or does not need.
Whilst France maintains control over the financial and economic institutions it built, holding vetoes on the central banks’ selection of governors and the interest rates of their currencies, the African states have struggled to diversify given their lack of export capabilities coupled with a lack of any meaningful non-paternalistic business relationships. Add to this that French companies have priority to buy raw materials sold by the former colonies, and the result is exploitative exports of uranium to power France’s vast network of nuclear power plants, and the export of important weapons materials like manganese, chromium and phosphate. As President Bongo of Gabon was quoted, “Gabon without France is like a car without a driver, and France without Gabon is like a car without fuel.” This dynamic almost exactly reflects the colonial empires we read about in our school textbooks. The empire extracts natural resources from economies they control and have insulated from the rest of the world, whilst using the impoverished territories as markets for goods the territories do not need.
Finally, to protect such vital economic interests, empires need to exert military authority. Hence, France became the Gendarme of Africa. De Gaulle knew that after France lost Indochina and Algeria in a bloody style, if it were to remain an authoritative power with a secure seat on the UN Security Council, it would have to retain a military hold on Sub-Saharan Africa which could ensure the maintenance of friendly regimes which could safeguard French economic interests. De Gaulle thus enlisted Jacques Foccart.
This Secretary-General for African Affairs would embark in the mid 20th century on establishing an intricate network that ensured French dominance of its newly liberated colonies. Apart from a series of permanent bases scattered throughout the continent from the Central African Republic to the Ivory Coast, Foccart knew that in this new post-war world where the empires did not tolerate imperialism, he needed legal legitimization of this military authority. Foccart thus developed a series of bilateral agreements which included both technical military accords ensuring military advisors, equipment and training for African armies, and defense accords that legally authorised French military interference in the sovereign states. These accords gave the French army-wide legal legitimacy to militarily intervene, allowing free military access to the territories, their air space and territorial waters, the use of their ports, maritime, road, rail and river transports, and access to their postal and communications networks. France also began laying down communications networks for radio, television, and telephone operations, networks over which France still holds vast authority, whilst in terms of military communications it can be said that France effectively maintains exclusive control.
Initially, under the Pax Gallica military interventions were blatant and extensive For example mere French mobilization in Senegal stopped a 1962 coupe in its tracks, while a 1964 use of paratroopers in Gabon reinstalled a kidnapped president favourable to French authority. Likewise, Operation Bonite in 1978 saw French foreign legion troops not only save French lives during an uprising but also stabilise a faltering regime in Zaire. Furthermore, a good example of the Pax Gallica is operation Barracuda in 1979, when French troops overthrew Emperor Bokassa after tolerating his lavish and anachronistic coronation. However, military intervention extended to its greatest heights in the 80s, with the expansion of “Jaguar diplomacy,” named after the jets France used to frequently carry out airstrikes, emulating 19th-century gunboat diplomacy.
Nevertheless, by the 90s France transformed its authority to the new context so as to be less blatant. Not only was the army professionalised and limited, but especially after French failures which allowed for the butchery of the Rwandan Genocide, France recalibrated its position. France would now deploy through common initiatives, either through involving African states through the RECAMP initiative, or through UN missions. French intervention would now be firmly in the name of universal principles like combatting the violation of human rights, stopping delegitimate coupes, and protecting territorial integrity-the types of euphemisms we are all aware of in the current world of proxy conflicts. However, operations once more had to transform after indecisive action by French troops in a Coupe in the Ivory Coast led to the frantic operation Licorne beginning in 2002, with the cherry on top of French troops reportedly opening fire on protestors.
France still has a vast military network and presence in Africa which it uses to extend vast authority over the region. Not only were military operations in Libya in 2011 led by France, but perhaps the widest French military authority is exemplified by the extensive and ongoing Operation Barkhane seeing French troops combatting Islamist fundamentalism in the Sahel G5, and consolidating its military operations in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania. Most recently, France has had to use its military network in the ongoing and bloody war in the Central African Republic, which is forming a sort of proxy conflict with Russia.
This overview makes clear that the French Empire lived on well beyond the mid-20th century date written on its tombstone. However, what does the future hold? By now everyone knows very well about China’s rapidly expanding economic authority over Africa, and the way it has been building business relationships that industrialise the continent, create jobs, foster cheap labour, and develop a market for cheap Chinese goods. However, this investment has been broadly insulated from the French sphere of influence.
Recently it seems that France, and consequently the EU, have finally understood that the paternalistic relationship that had been fostered with North-Western Africa was not sustainable, and could lead to the area jumping into the arms of the economic sphere of a power which represents the political antithesis to the values France and Europe espouse. France seems to finally be understanding that its values should not only extend to itself.
Under President Macron there has been a rapid shift in France’s relations with its former colonies. In 2020 the French parliament ratified a law set to dismantle the CFA zone, with African states no longer being required to deposit foreign reserves into the operations account in Paris, and France pulling out its national authorities from the CFA governing bodies. The CFA francs would now even be renamed into the eco.
Furthermore, the president also commissioned a report into French colonial atrocities in Africa, perhaps to reconcile the father with its children before finally letting them go on to build their own lives. It is no doubt that France and Europe should build the type of relations China is building if it is to exert its values on the continent. France must reconcile with its colonial past rather than attempt to shift and adapt it to a new age. Colonial-rule allowed for atrocities like those under the Voulet-Chanoine mission which even at the time provoked scandal amongst Paris for its ruthlessness. Niger’s main highway follows Voulet’s trail of blood as he rampaged through central Africa killing thousands until his own troops were disgusted by him and killed him. Brutal French crackdowns remain unforgotten in Algeria, as May 8th is always remembered for French troops opening fire and killing tens of thousands of Algerians who were demanding independence. All French colonies witnessed one form or another of atrocities; from Senegalese riflemen who had fought for France in WW2 being shot when demanding pensions, to the thousands killed in the Bamileke war, and to the crushing of Madagascar’s independence movement.
Regardless of your views as to whether France should now claim responsibility for these atrocities, it is doubtless that by accepting responsibility and officially bringing closure, France and the EU may create stronger diplomatic ties than neo-colonial rule ever could.