France in Mali: myths and realities

The French intervention in Mali in 2013 was portrayed by many commentators at the time as another manifestation of la Françafrique. Tony Chafer argues that framing the intervention in this way is both problematic and misleading.

Tony Chafer is Professor of Contemporary French Area Studies and Director of the Centre for European and International Studies Research at the University of Portsmouth. His main research interests lie in French African policy in the colonial and post-colonial periods, French military and security policy in Africa and EU security policy in Africa. He is a Research Associate of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and acts as a consultant to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on French African policy.


Since the 1990s, la Françafrique has become shorthand for a neo-colonial relationship rooted in illicit and often criminal practices designed to maintain France’s ex-colonies in a relationship of dependency with the former metropole. Underpinning this relationship, it is argued, there exists a range of official links that have bound, and in many ways continue to bind, France to its former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. These include defence and military assistance, economic aid, political, business and cultural links, and the maintenance of a common currency zone, alongside a dense network of semi-official and illicit networks.

This Françafrique frame of reference is problematic for several reasons. First, in using the term Françafrique there is always the danger of appearing to posit ‘France’ as a unitary actor. This is likely to be problematic in any area of public policy analysis but is especially so in the case of French African policy, where so many different actors have a significant stake in policy-making: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Cooperation (abolished as a full ministry in 1998 but a Minister for Cooperation continued to exist on and off until 2012), the Finance Ministry and, most importantly, the president and his special advisers in the so-called ‘Africa cell’ at the Élysée. To this list we should also add the Agence Française de Développement, which in recent years has played an increasingly important role, and the Ministry of Defence, which has long played a key role in French Africa policy and especially so under president Hollande.

Second, some have argued that, if Françafrique was always of limited use as an analytical tool for understanding Franco-African relations, today it is simply anachronistic. The victim of demographic decline, France no longer has great weight south of the Sahara. The number of French technical assistants in sub-Saharan Africa dropped by 80% between 1992 and 2013 and the number of military assistants declined from 925 to 225 over the same period. In short, Françafrique is an outdated concept because France no longer has the human resources on which the Françafrique networks depended.

Third, since the 1998 Saint-Malo Franco-British summit, and especially since 9/11, France has increasingly cooperated with the UK and US on security issues in Africa. Franco-British summits now regularly include a chapter on Africa and institutional bridges have been built through secondments of personnel and regular meetings that are designed to improve the countries’ understanding of each other’s modus operandi in the peace and security field. France, the US and the UK also cooperate on African issues within the so-called ‘P3’ at the level of the UN Security Council. The UK’s provision of political and logistical support to the French-led Operation Serval in Mali in 2013 and the ongoing close cooperation between French and US forces in the Gulf of Guinea and the Sahara-Sahel zone are concrete examples of such cooperation on the ground in Africa.

Fourth, Françafrique as a frame of analysis downplays, if not ignores, African agency. This is not a new development; African leaders have often taken the initiative in sustaining and deepening the relationship. For example, president Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire played a significant role in shaping French policy towards Biafra during the Nigerian civil war (1967-70); it was president Hamani Diori of Niger who in 1973 suggested establishing the Franco-African summit as an annual event; and it was African presidents who in 1982 played a key role in convincing president Mitterrand to sack his reforming Minister for Cooperation, Jean-Pierre Cot.

Finally, Françafrique is problematic because it homogenises an increasingly differentiated relationship between France and its former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. Some former French colonies do not consider themselves pays du champ [part of France’s privileged sphere of influence in sub-Saharan Africa] and indeed have never done so. Mali is one such case.

Unlike other former colonies such as Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire, there have never been close relations between French and Malian governing elites: the latter have always resisted co-optation by French elites and there are no mafia-like unofficial networks linking the two countries. Indeed, while Mali has maintained its links with France throughout the post-colonial period, these relations have often been tense. Moreover, landlocked and lacking significant natural resources (such as oil) or agricultural potential, Mali was never a major focus for French business or trading interests. Indeed when, on 22 September 1960, Mali unilaterally declared its independence, it also asserted its ‘freedom from all engagements’ with the former colonial power: the new Mali government refused, for example, to sign defence or military cooperation accords with France. Alongside Guinea and Cameroon, Mali’s leaders thus adopted the most radical anti-colonial stance towards France in sub-Saharan Africa. They also accused France of sabotaging the Mali Federation with Senegal in 1962 as part of a deliberate plan to ‘balkanise’ Francophone Africa so as to weaken it and maintain the dependence of its former colonies on France. The presentation of France’s military intervention in the country in 2013 as the latest avatar of the Françafrique tradition is thus, at the very least, misleading, as it fails to take account of the complex, often tense nature of Franco-Malian relations in the post-colonial period.

How then are we to understand the recent French military intervention in Mali? I argue that geostrategic considerations provide a more useful frame of analysis. Africa, and particularly West and Central Africa, remain centrally important to France in geostrategic terms. First, African countries play a central role in the Organisation International de la Francophonie. This region has the greatest concentration of countries in the world where French is the official language and is therefore of crucial importance to the maintenance of French as a world language. Second, France has significant political and economic interests in West and Central Africa: petroleum (Gabon, Congo, Gulf of Guinea), uranium (Niger), trade in cocoa and coffee (Côte d’Ivoire), as well as banking, transport and other services (water, communications, telephony) throughout the region. However, landlocked and lacking in significant natural resources, such as oil, or agricultural potential, Mali has never been a significant focus for French business or trading interests.

The key explanation for France’s intervention in Mali must therefore be sought elsewhere. It needs to be understood, above all, in the context of the importance that France continues to attach to Africa as a privileged arena for the projection of French power overseas. This has been a structural constant underpinning French Africa policy throughout the Fifth Republic, which has ultimately prevented Hollande, like his predecessor Sarkozy, from carrying out his promise to make a complete break with the past in Africa policy and ‘normalize’ Franco-African relations. Certainly, efforts have been made to reconfigure France’s relations with Africa and there have, as we have seen, been significant changes in approach and language. But if France is to maintain its position as a significant external actor in Africa, especially in a context in which other external actors, such as the US, China, Brazil and India, have been stepping up their interest in the continent, it cannot, as a major western power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, opt out of the military responsibilities that go with that position. The Security Council passed three resolutions in 2011–12 identifying terrorism as one of the greatest threats to peace and security on the continent and Resolution 2085 in December 2012 referred specifically to the threat of terrorist networks in Mali. Against this background and as a permanent member of the Security Council with troops on the ground who had on many occasions demonstrated their capacity to intervene in African crises, France would have found it difficult to justify not intervening, especially as it had played a key role in drawing international attention to the terrorist threat in the region.

Moreover, African political leaders know the geostrategic importance that France attaches to Africa and they are adept at exploiting the situation. They know that France’s governing élites are sensitive to the charge of neo-colonialism, but also to the accusation that they are ‘abandoning’ Africa if they do not intervene when crises develop. They know that France wants to remain a major player on the continent and that it does not have the leverage that it had on the continent even just 10 years ago. This gives them a degree of influence over French Africa policy that has prompted one respected commentator to suggest recently that African political leaders have inverted the power relations between France and Africa, so that, in effect, ‘Françafrique’ has become ‘Africa-France’, with African leaders now pulling the strings.[1] This is true up to a point; for example President Macky Sall of Senegal and President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger were at the forefront of those calling for French intervention in Mali, fearing that an Islamist takeover in that country would have serious security implications for their countries. However, it should not be taken too far, since both France and its African allies benefit, in different ways, from the relationship.

Operation Serval is evidence of this. On the one hand, France has security interests in the Sahara-Sahel. The French bases in neighbouring Niger and Chad show that Libya remains a key security concern, as instability in that country provides a base from which extremist groups can operate throughout the region; Niger is also strategically important for France as it provides 70% of the uranium for France’s nuclear power programme. Given the porosity of borders, instability in Mali could affect the entire region and threaten French interests in a part of the world that it still considers, in many respects, as its ‘backyard’. On the other hand, for African political leaders, such as president Deby of Chad, who have dubious human rights records and democratic credentials, the operation provides support and international legitimacy. Moreover, in conflict situations such as that which arose in Mali in 2013, African political leaders often prefer to work with the competent and reliable French military, rather than an untested multinational African army whose fighting capacity is uncertain and political commitments may lie elsewhere.


[1] Antoine Glaser, AfricaFrance: quand les dirigeants africains deviennent les maîtres du jour (Fayard, 2014).


This post is co-published with the blog West Africa Peace and Security Network:

One thought on “France in Mali: myths and realities

  1. Pingback: France in Mali: myths and realities | West Africa Peace and Security Network

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.