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France’s Long Legacy of Colonialism Lives on in Sahel Crisis

The instability and loss of civilian governance in the Sahel is a result of French policy and continued interference.

A demonstrator taking part in a march carries a sign reading "Down with France, long live the CNSP" ("National Council for the Protection of the Fatherland") in Niamey, Niger, on July 30, 2023.

This fall, the military junta in Niger compelled France to agree to withdraw its ambassador and 1,500 soldiers from the country. The decision followed an ultimatum from Nigerien authorities and a wave of protests demanding their expulsion, as well as a tense standoff at the French embassy. At the height of the crisis, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the junta had taken Ambassador Sylvain Itte “hostage,” blocking food deliveries and forcing diplomats to live on rations.

On October 19, the first convoy of French forces leaving Niger completed a nine-day journey to N’Djamena, Chad. That same week, Macron met with Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Déby in Paris to discuss France’s future military posture in the region.

Throughout the crisis, French leaders have defended their policy in the Sahel, the semiarid region that stretches below the Sahara across Africa. Macron insists that military operations were a “success,” claiming that without them “the majority of these countries would have already been taken by … jihadists.” Dismissing charges of colonialism, he also emphasizes that “Françafrique no longer exists,” referencing the system of French domination in Africa that has periodically stirred public debate since the 1990s.

In reality, interventionism is at the heart of the current crisis. For decades, France has repeatedly interfered in Africa to secure strategic resources, strengthen allied regimes and contain rival powers. But instead of stability, French policy has fostered repression and supercharged local conflicts — contributing to a chain of recent coups and the partial political realignment of the Sahel. Far from dead, Françafrique remains very much alive, long engendering chaos for African societies and now the officials who manage the system.

Building Françafrique

In the 1950s, the spiraling costs of the Algerian War, a protracted struggle over French rule in North Africa, convinced President Charles de Gaulle to liquidate France’s colonial empire. Yet he subverted independence for African states from the outset, drafting new military and economic agreements that ensured France’s continued hegemony in Africa. In particular, he secured bases in the Ivory Coast, Gabon, and elsewhere to guarantee access to strategic resources such as oil and uranium. As the historian Thomas Deltombe observes in the 2021 anthology, The Empire That Doesn’t Want to Die: A History of Françafrique, French policymakers aimed to “modernize colonialism in order to perfect it.”

They also aspired to expand Françafrique, this new system of French domination through decolonization. In the 1960s, French, Belgian and U.S. leaders conspired to place the Democratic Republic of the Congo into overlapping spheres of influence, eyeing its copper, cobalt, and other mineral resources. De Gaulle regarded Congolese leaders with racist condescension and supported secessionist forces carving out their own state in the Katanga Province. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower made assassinating Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba — an outspoken critic of colonialism — a top priority. Vice President Richard Nixon summarized the outlook of both Washington and Paris, arguing that the Congolese were incapable of self-rule because they “have been out of the trees for only about 50 years.” Eventually, Central Intelligence Agency asset Col. Joseph Mobutu toppled Lumumba before delivering him to political enemies who dissolved his body in acid.

The invisible yet rampant exploitation of the postcolonial period, Françafrique meant colonialism without responsibility; the exploitation of African labor, resources and independence itself for foreign profit.

Over the decade, the U.S. and France encouraged Western mercenaries to help Mobutu pulverize dissent and turn the Congo into a pliant ally. The legacy of French imperialism loomed heavy: French veterans from colonial wars such as Roger Trinquier commanded Congolese forces and governed entire swathes of territory. Although working for African leaders, Trinquier and others also reported to French and U.S. intelligence agencies. The mercenary and CIA asset, Mike Hoare, asserted that “killing African nationalists is as if one is killing an animal.” Privately, the CIA noted that Hoare’s men committed “robbery, rape, murder and beatings.” During the 1960s and ’70s, France repeatedly rescued Mobutu from rebel forces. According to scholars Susan Williams and Stephen Weissman, CIA covert operations in the Congo were the most expensive in its history, fueling a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands.

Throughout the Cold War, French officials consolidated Françafrique with U.S. encouragement to retain effective sovereignty over much of the continent. The historian Elizabeth Schmidt concludes that France conducted more than three dozen interventions in 16 countries. Meanwhile, French assistance and pampering turned leaders like Mobutu and the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa into local proxies. In 1977, officials supported the coronation of Bokassa as emperor — helping him spend the equivalent of his country’s entire annual budget on the ceremony. Two years later, French soldiers removed Bokassa from power after he began flirting with France’s local rival, President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.

The cynicism of Françafrique reached its climax during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when policymakers backed Hutu extremists to preserve their foothold in the country. France supposedly initiated “Operation Turquoise” to stem the bloodshed, yet multiple women claimed that French soldiers abused them. “They raped us because we were Tutsis,” one survivor explained. “Many soldiers were convinced that we would not survive. They were raping future cadavers.”

In many ways, the operation symbolized the invisible yet rampant exploitation of the postcolonial period. Françafrique meant colonialism without responsibility; the exploitation of African labor, resources and independence itself for foreign profit. Reflecting this perverse dynamic, a leading proponent of Françafrique, French Sen. Pierre Biarnès, described his encounters with both the continent’s presidents and sex workers in his 2007 memoir. Biarnès dubbed the period “30 glorious years of ass,” openly celebrating the political and sexual conquests of French representatives in Africa.

The Illusion of Change

During the 1990s, a cascade of scandals implicated French officials in arms trafficking, financial corruption, and political manipulation, searing the term Françafrique into the political discourse. Notoriously, the lawyer Robert Bourgi admitted funneling money from Mobutu and other kleptocrats to President Jacques Chirac, while claiming that every French president since the 1970s pocketed similar payments.

Rather than defeating jihadism, the war on terror offered French leaders a pretext to assert their presence in Africa as rival powers made inroads into the region.

Since then, successive administrations have repudiated their colonial past, while continuing to tenaciously defend the infrastructure of French power in Africa. French President Nicolas Sarkozy formalized this pattern by promising change while befriending dictators such as Libya’s Gaddafi. Investigators allege that the two concluded “a pact of corruption” involving illegal campaign payments. Later, the Gaddafi family threatened to reveal compromising secrets, as Sarkozy promoted the 2011 airstrikes that decapitated their regime. That same year, he also sent helicopter gunships to oust Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo after the Ivorian leader denounced French meddling in his country.

Entrenched racism propels this cycle of interventionism, as soldiers pursue operations to block both jihadists and African immigrants from reaching Europe. Policymakers often reference Stephen Smith, a former Le Monde correspondent who bluntly declared that Africans are destroying their own continent and “committing suicide.” Echoing Smith’s arguments, Sarkozy has stated that “the African has not fully entered into history,” while warning that Black immigrants put “European civilization” in jeopardy.

In October 2012, Sarkozy’s successor, François Hollande, also announced the end of Françafrique while delivering a veiled critique of Sarkozy in Dakar, Senegal. But only three months later, Hollande launched “Operation Serval,” deploying troops to Mali to repel rebel forces approaching Bamako. Incredibly, Hollande’s administration even drafted the Malian government’s letter requesting French intervention.

Eventually, Serval morphed into “Operation Barkhane,” a campaign to eradicate jihadism across five Sahelian states. Hollande framed the initiative as part of the global “war on terror,” while U.S. officials outsourced imperialism to France in Africa. “The Americans do not want to intervene in the region after getting bogged down in Iraq,” a correspondent from Le Figaro explained. “And therefore, the Americans discreetly pushed the French, encouraging [them].” The French Parliament later concluded that U.S. Africa Command provided “essential aid” for operations, including satellite and drone assistance, freight transport, and other logistical support.

Policymakers in both countries regarded Africa as volatile and primitive, justifying intervention with barely concealed racism. U.S. military sources described the Sahel as a “vast, ungoverned region” that the “wildfire of terrorism” scorched. Likewise, Hollande invoked crude stereotypes, arguing that French forces in the Central African Republic were necessary to prevent “children from being cut into pieces.” Emboldened by early military achievements, President Barack Obama and Hollande published an op-ed in 2014 portraying Operation Barkhane as a victory for democracy.

Peace Through Repression

Yet government documents suggest that French leaders partly invaded the Sahel region to strengthen Françafrique. A 2014 parliamentary report encouraged policymakers to “maintain a military apparatus” in Africa, insisting that France’s base network was necessary for “defending its interests” and preserving “strategic autonomy.” Authors portrayed bases as spindles that weave French influence into a seamless tapestry of power, embedding officials into local governments and making rapid deployments possible. The report emphasized that security cooperation enabled France to secure “levers of influence at a very low price” by directly inserting military advisers “into the cabinets, general staffs, and services where they are assigned.” Less subtly, French Gen. Bertrand Ract-Madoux informed investigators that bases allow Paris to “act with its ground forces wherever it deems necessary.”

Ultimately, security cooperation has enabled African governments to stifle challenges to authoritarian rule and French hegemony. Between 2003 and 2013, France intervened multiple times in the Central African Republic to save President François Bozizé from rebel offensives, as he displaced more than 100,000 civilians in a counterinsurgency campaign. Dozens of French advisers occupied key posts in his government and oversaw the restructuring of his military. After Bozizé fell in 2013, France launched “Operation Sangaris,” deploying 2,000 soldiers to the country, accelerating another cycle of violence. A United Nations whistleblower revealed allegations that French troops even compelled starving children in Bangui to perform oral sex for food.

While claiming to defend African lives, French officials blocked the very refugees their policies displaced from reaching Europe.

The French military also intervened in Chad in 2019 to protect President Idriss Déby, its staunchest regional ally. Only months earlier, Chadian officials had posted a video of themselves torturing a suspected thief on social media. After being saved by France, Déby rigged his sixth election in April 2021, claiming nearly 80 percent of the vote as the opposition boycotted proceedings. He then died days later. French authorities announced that France “lost a brave friend,” and President Macron attended his funeral, while Chadian authorities mowed down pro-democracy protests with live bullets.

Yet the worst example of repression was Operation Barkhane itself, which ended last November. Local forces in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger repeatedly slaughtered civilians from the Peul ethnic group with the complicity of Western leaders. “We know what is going on,” a French diplomat admitted in 2020. “But our ability to act is limited.” Later, a parliamentary investigation acknowledged that France’s partners maintained a “predatory” posture toward citizens and organized “numerous massacres.” Despite Obama and Hollande’s optimism, the investigation’s authors concluded that claims of progress in Mali “all proved to be illusory.” But France was more than complicit in the violence. News of French war crimes further undermined the military operation’s image, including revelations that drone operators bombed a wedding in Mali and soldiers molested girls in Burkina Faso.

Rather than defeating jihadism, the war on terror offered French leaders a pretext to assert their presence in Africa as rival powers made inroads into the region. Over the past decade, French legislators have denounced China for consolidating “Chinafrique,” while lamenting “the decline of our country’s influence,” and that French youth “seem to have lost their taste for the African adventure.” Government authorities also exhorted French businessmen to protect their share of the market, promoting publicity that highlights “the contribution of French enterprises to the development of the … continent.”

While claiming to defend African lives, French officials blocked the very refugees their policies displaced from reaching Europe. Citing former Le Monde columnist Stephen Smith, Macron stoked fears about a “demographic bomb,” arguing that Sahelian birthrates and migration posed a national threat. French officials even collaborated with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to halt immigration, as his regime committed genocide in Darfur. Privately, Sudanese leaders reported “weekly meetings” with French police to deport political refugees. Over the past decade, France and other European powers have “externalized” immigration control, militarized borders and forced Africans to seek asylum in third countries.

A System in Crisis

In the end, Operation Barkhane backfired, lending weight to jihadist propaganda about Western imperialism, devastating communities and alienating local officers by perpetuating political instability. Between May 2021 and January 2022, officers seized power in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, while tapping popular discontent over French interventionism and support for corrupt governments. The string of coups was a sobering blow for the Macron administration, which lost access to military bases and regional partners. Once more, French officials promised a shift in policy, even as they mobilized to safeguard French hegemony. While recognizing that Barkhane failed, French legislators emphasized they should “not cede ground to France’s strategic competitors.” To avoid future backlash, they proposed adopting a light footprint in the region, touting operations in Niger as “without a doubt an example to follow.”

French policy has heightened local conflicts: propping up undemocratic regimes, killing thousands of civilians and strengthening the very military forces seizing power.

Then on July 26, 2023, a military junta toppled the government in Niger and demanded French troops leave the country. The public radio station, France Inter, described the prospect of withdrawal as “a veritable catastrophe” for France, posing an “existential problem” for its strategic posture. Protesters in Niger expressed outrage over the legacy of Barkhane, ripping the sign off the French embassy and declaring, “Down with France!

Only one month later, military officers in Gabon ejected Gabonese President Ali Bongo, toppling one of the oldest family dynasties and pillars of Françafrique. For over five decades, French politicians and corporations such as the oil and gas giant Total helped the Bongos retain power and amass an illicit fortune — including more than 30 properties in France alone. The military base in Libreville is “patrimony of the French republic,” and France previously kept a detachment in Gabon to protect the Bongo family, according to former Minister of the Interior Pierre Joxe.

As tensions escalated, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso signed a defense agreement in September to prevent Macron and his regional allies from invading. At the UN, the Guinean coup leader, Col. Mamadi Doumbouya, delivered a scathing critique of French policy, declaring that the era of “the old Africa” is over.

Nonetheless, Macron defends the legacy of Operation Barkhane. “I am proud, and we should be proud, that this operation was a success,” he informed the French public. Meanwhile, rebel forces threaten the Malian government, and UN officials state that attacks in the north have more than doubled since August. Along the border, the Burkinabé junta cites deteriorating security to curb civil liberties, emphasizing that elections are “not a priority.” And across the Sahel, the Russian mercenary firm, Wagner Group, is deepening ties with local governments, while committing war crimes such as the Moura massacre.

Western media coverage largely focuses on the loss of civilian governance and rising Russian influence in the Sahel. Yet the coups also signify a crisis for Françafrique, as governments cut off access to military bases and strategic partners. Rather than stabilizing the region, French policy has heightened local conflicts: propping up undemocratic regimes, killing thousands of civilians and strengthening the very military forces seizing power.

In effect, Macron has justified failure by proclaiming victory in an ongoing war, while simply denying the presence of Françafrique. Over 60 years since decolonization, French leaders still fear Africa’s independence, while Africans confront an empire that no longer exists but refuses to die.

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