The French military in Africa: successes, challenges ahead?

While French president Hollande claims that his French policy in Africa represents a change from that of his predecessor Sarkozy, France is still engaged in two military operations in Africa which both started prior to his presidency, in 2013. Does this apparent contradiction reflect a political will on his part or is it the result of other processes?

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.


France has since January 2013 been engaged in two major new military operations in the Sahel/Sahara, but major problems persist. Operation Serval, the 2013 combined French-Chadian military intervention in Mali, was widely regarded as a military success. On 1 August 2014, Serval came to an end and was replaced by a new, regional Sahel-Sahara military mission, Operation Barkhane, undertaken in partnership with the so-called ‘G5 Sahel’ countries: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. Yet the continuing insecurity in Mali is a clear indication that the underlying problems have not been resolved by Operation Serval. A political solution seems as distant a prospect as ever; yet without it and without an effective counter-insurgency strategy to win over and sustain the support of the local population, there is no basis for an enduring peace.

The French military intervention in Central African Republic (CAR), which was launched in December 2013, has also faced challenges. Security has not returned to the country, despite the deployment of EU and UN forces alongside the French forces in 2014, and, to add to the difficulties, in May 2015 Paris launched a criminal inquiry into alleged sex abuse of children by French peacekeepers in CAR.

The serious abuse allegations made against French soldiers in CAR are an extremely sensitive issue in France. Accusations of torture in Algeria and French military support for the Rwandan regime that was responsible for the 1994 genocide tarnished the army’s image. President Hollande promised a new partnership with Africa and has sought to portray French forces as a force for good on the continent, conducting anti-terrorist operations in Mali and the Sahel, supporting the fight against Boko Haram in the Chad Basin and protecting civilians in CAR. He has staked his foreign policy and presidential image on military intervention in Africa.

Yet French policy in Africa continues to face challenges. There is, so far, no sign of a quick resolution to the abuse allegations. Its alliances with authoritarian regimes across the region are a threat to its humanitarian credentials and may in the long term undermine support for the French military presence and operations. France is keen to transfer greater responsibility for peacekeeping to multinational (UN, EU, African) forces so as to reduce the political risks of its military involvements in Africa, but this is also fraught with problems.


Legitimising France’s military presence on the continent since 9/11

The overarching strategic structural conditions within which the French president is constrained to act go back some twenty years. Following the Rwanda genocide and accusations that the French had been complicit in the genocide because of its military support for the Habyarimana regime that was responsible for the genocide, France has needed to re-legitimise its military presence in Africa. To do this, it initially turned to the EU and partnership with the UK (announced at the 1998 Franco-British summit in Saint-Malo) on African issues, in an effort to share the costs and offset the political risks of its military presence and interventions in Africa. However, since the French-inspired EU operation in Chad/CAR (EUFOR Chad/CAR 2008-9), EU member states – notably Germany – have been wary of France’s military activism in Africa, suspecting it of using EU resources and political cover to pursue its own agenda in Africa.

Since 9/11, but more particularly since 2010, the French military presence in Africa has been justified by reference to its humanitarian role and as part of the international struggle against terrorism. Against this background, President Hollande had little room for manoeuvre when, in January 2013, French military intelligence services warned him that Islamist militants were about to seize the strategically important military airport of Sevare and were less than 700 kilometres from Mali’s capital, Bamako, which they could reach within days. As a UNSC permanent member that had for several years been warning about the security risks posed by terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara region, and with a military presence that was justified by reference to the role it was playing in the fight against terrorism, it would have been difficult for France not to intervene.

Under President Obama, and particularly since the 2011 Libyan intervention to topple Colonel Gadaffi, the US has been reluctant to undertake new military operations overseas. However, the US shares French concerns about the threat of terrorism in the ‘ungoverned spaces’ of the Sahel-Sahara. It therefore cooperates closely with France in the region, providing intelligence and surveillance support (including American drones). It has supported the French interventions in Mali and CAR and is a strong supporter of Operation Barkhane.

Moreover, deeply concerned about the security implications for their countries and for the region of an Islamist takeover in Mali and frustrated by the failures and inaction of the UN, the AU and ECOWAS, the presidents of Niger (Mahamadou Issoufou) and Senegal (Macky Sall) pressed France to intervene.

Against this background, the 2013 interventions in Mali and CAR cannot be seen in the same light as previous French unilateral military interventions, when France was accused of acting as the ’gendarme of Africa’.


Was the Mali intervention a success?

From a military point of view, the Mali intervention was a success. It prevented the takeover of the country by Islamist militants and pushed them back into their northern heartlands or over the border into neighbouring countries. President Issoufou described it as France’s most popular military intervention on the continent. But it has not brought peace, security or reconciliation to the country. Operation Serval has been scaled up into a much larger regional Operation Barkhane. Well-armed rebels, often supported by experienced fighters from Gaddafi’s Libya, have continued to mount sporadic attacks across the north and, in 2015, in Bamako itself, when a number of people were killed.

Long-term stability will require sustained efforts at reconciliation, significant decentralisation of powers to the north and a major development effort to provide jobs for northerners. Yet none of these is forthcoming. The international community, led by France, has hitherto been unable to galvanise the government into action, resulting in political inaction.

Moreover, the ‘peace interventions’ in the region have resulted in the growing militarisation of the Sahel. This has transformed it as a geographical space and radically altered the economic and social relations and political dynamics of the region. Islamist movements are routinely portrayed as potential Al-Qaeda or Isis affiliates, which fails to recognise the local nature and identities of African Islamist movements and the ways in which they are grounded in long-standing local grievances. The long-term consequences of this militarisation are unclear.

What is clear is that militarisation does not tackle insecurity at its roots, for example by providing people with the means to earn livelihoods without resorting to transnational organised crime, and that French, and indeed international, peace interveners are not equipped, and do not have the resources, to implement the wide-ranging development programmes that are needed.



President Hollande declared that France would not put ‘boots on the ground’ in Mali or CAR. Yet French troops were subsequently deployed to both countries. This has led some commentators to question Hollande’s commitment to break with the corrupt, neo-colonial practices of Françafrique and establish a new partnership with Africa. As several commentators have pointed out, his predecessor as president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made similar promises.

The 2013 French Defence White Paper attached increased strategic importance to Africa. It noted the increasing, and increasingly complex, security threats in the Sahel-Sahara region and put forward three basic principles to guide policy: multilateralism, Africanisation, and maintenance of the capacity for France to intervene alone.

Multilateralism is problematic, as the US and other EU member states are reluctant to get involved militarily and the UN has no mandate for war-fighting. This results in a de facto division of labour, as happened in Mali, where war fighting is done by French forces, while UN forces in MINUSMA take on the role of peacekeeping. Africanisation of peace and security is also problematic, given the lack of capacity (in terms of equipment, logistics, intelligence and inter-operability) of African forces and the difficulties involved in obtaining political agreement between African governments for intervention. The result is that, when new threats emerge, France seems likely to continue to be expected to undertake military interventions on its own when crises arise.

France is therefore caught between a rock and a hard place. In this region, others are unwilling or unable to intervene, so it feels obliged, or indeed is called upon, to intervene. France is indeed the only power with the political will and military capability to undertake an effective intervention. Yet, when it intervenes unilaterally, there is a fundamental legitimacy problem. First, unilateral actions risk looking like Françafrique and run the risk that France will again be accused of being a neo-colonial power. Second, there is what Colin Powell once called the ‘you break it you own it problem’; in other words, if France intervenes unilaterally, it owns the consequences, whatever they may be and even if they are not its fault.

What can we conclude from this? Does Hollande have a military strategy in Africa? Is it new? Or is he simply reproducing the patterns of the past, when France was often accused of being the ‘gendarme of Africa’? While the discourse has changed from Sarkozy to Hollande – there is now greater emphasis on partnership with Africans – the strategic context has not. There will therefore continue to be pressure on France to intervene militarily in Africa. This poses a number of challenges for France:

  • If security is not restored, if peace fails to return in Mali and CAR, France will find it hard to sustain support for its military operations across the Sahel-Sahara region.
  • Alliances with authoritarian regimes (e.g. Chad) with poor human rights records may well, in the medium term, generate opposition to the French military presence and operations in the region.
  • Linked to the above, France faces a fundamental tension between the challenge of needing, or being expected, to “do something”, and the risk of de-legitimation when it does intervene.
  • If any further allegations emerge about abuses by French soldiers, President Hollande will find it difficult to continue to promote France’s military presence in Africa as a force for good.
  • With some 10,000 troops now stationed in Africa and Operation Barkhane spanning five countries, the cost of its military presence and actions on the continent is high. President Hollande recently announced an increase in the defence budget, but sustaining all of France’s military commitments in the current difficult economic context will remain challenging.


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

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: