French interests in Africa face monumental challenges in 2024 – especially following the toppling of leaders in Niger and Burkina Faso – which, like Mali, are former French military strongholds in the restive Sahel region.
A lengthy partnership with Gabon, a key player in central Africa, was similarly brought to an end by an abrupt coup.
France is seeing a watershed moment in its ties with Africa, says Babacar Ndiaye, a senior fellow at the Timbuktu Institute in Senegal, who says relations are “probably the worst since the beginning of colonisation and slavery”.
The five-country alliance known as the G5 Sahel, partnered with France to fight terrorism across the desolate territory, has meanwhile collapsed.
Its remaining members, Chad and Mauritania, suggest the total dissolution of the alliance is near.
France’s embassy in Niger’s capital Niamey closed during the first days of 2024 amid anti-French sentiment that has reinforced support for military juntas who show little interest in ensuring democracy and security.
“Among young people in cities and towns, army leaders remain popular – thanks less to their public service delivery than to their rhetoric about sovereignty, which plays on lingering resentment of France,” the Crisis Group think tank said as it published a list of 10 conflicts to watch in 2024.
The emboldened juntas in power in Bamako, Ouagadougou and now Niamey are being propped up by paramilitary forces from the Russian Wagner mercenary group.
Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, where France’s peacekeeping mission between 2013 and 2022 is also seen as a failure, Russian forces have replaced French soldiers.
US security firms are also vying for a way in.
While French forces remain in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, Djibouti and Chad, their role on the continent is unclear following the departure of troops from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The Timbuktu Institute says Germany is seeking to fill the void as European concern for the future of the region grows.
“France has lost its diplomatic and military place in the Sahel for sure,” Ndiaye told RFI. “What Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Foccart had built after the end of the colonial period is no more.”
Even the head of the European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, has warned that Europe’s strategy in the region is a failure.
It’s evidence that the Sahel’s Islamist insurgency cannot be beaten with a military strategy, Ndiaye adds.
“We cannot fight an ideology with arms … These countries need development and democracy.”
Weakened cultural ties
The tensions are also visible in economic links and the cultural exchanges.
In the former French colonies, President Emmanuel Macron is simply seen as the heir to “a system that has yet to be fully dismantled”, Ndiaye says.
Economically, China is the big winner in the region, and now the biggest investor on the continent, followed by the USA, then France, with growing interest coming from Britain, Germany, Turkey and Japan.
China has considerable oil and gas interests in Niger, in particular.
A controversial immigration law passed by France last month is also tipped to have a catastrophic impact on French-African relations.
Pierre Jacquemot, a former French ambassador to Kenya, Ghana and the DRC, told RFI that the new rules, which imposing prohibitive charges for visas, are a terrible message for African students.
Those students, he says, would contribute greatly to future relations between France and their home countries.
The manner in which Paris has dealt with the Niger crisis is the worst in its history, especially given that Niamey had been an ally since its independence, Jacquemot told RFI.
He’s calling for an urgent rethink of student visas as well as the deployment of trained staff to French consulates who could support businesses and researchers in Sub-Saharan and north Africa.
The network of French institutes and schools in Africa could also be used to foster better cultural and business relations.