By: Giorgio Spagnol
A diplomatic row between Italy and France over migration to Europe started when Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio accused France of impoverishing African countries by maintaining: “If today we still have people leaving Africa, it is due to several European countries, first of all France, that didn't finish colonizing Africa”.
Di Maio said France was manipulating the economies of 14 African countries that use the CFA franc, a currency underwritten by the French Treasury and pegged to the Euro. He then added: "If France didn't have its African colonies, because that's what they should be called, it would be the 15th largest world economy. Instead it's among the first, exactly because of what it is doing in Africa."
Is France really robbing its former African colonies? Is the current relationship between African countries and France preventing successful African development and sovereignty?
France in Africa
More than a million African soldiers contributed to the defeat of Nazism and Fascism in World War II, a contribution often ignored or underestimated by France that has always taken for granted that Africans may be used again in the case of any military threat or war expectation.
After World War II, through political, security, economic and cultural ties, France did maintain a tight stranglehold in Francophone Africa, both to serve its interests and retain a last bastion of imperial prestige.
The leaders of African countries can be corrupt and not working in the interest of their citizens but, even if they wanted to be honest leaders, they would not be able to do so.
How could this happen? After World War II, the colonial pact maintained the French control over the economies of the African states; it took possession of their foreign currency reserves; it controlled the strategic raw materials of the country; it stationed troops in the country with the right of free passage; it demanded that all military equipment be acquired from France; it took over the training of the African police and army; it required that French businesses be allowed to maintain monopoly enterprises in key areas (water, electricity, ports, transport, energy, etc.). France not only set limits on the imports of a range of items from outside the franc zone but also set minimum quantities of imports from France. These treaties are still in force and operational.
For the past half-century, the secretive and powerful "African Cell" has overseen France's strategic interests in Africa reporting only to one person: the French president. Some of the consequences for the Africa countries of a policy of dependence are obvious: dependence on the French economy; dependence on the French military; and the open-door policy for French private enterprise.
Beside being forced to pay a “colonial debt”, 14 Western and Central African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon) have their national reserves held by France into France's Central Bank. It is estimated that France now holds nearly $500 billion every year of African countries’ money in its treasury and will do anything to keep it. Moreover, the African countries do not have access to this money.
In fact France forced its former colonies – CFA countries – to put 65% of their foreign currency reserves into the French Treasury, plus another 20% for financial liabilities, thus leaving them access to only 15% of their own money. If they need more they have to borrow their own money from France at commercial rates. Thus these African states are French taxpayers but their citizens are not French and do not have access to public goods and services their money helps pay for. Do French people know they’re living off the wealth of African countries and have been doing so for over half a century? And if they know, do they care at all?
France has the first right to buy any natural resources found on the territory of its ex-colonies. The African countries are also not allowed to seek other partners freely as the preference is given to French interests and companies in the field of public procurement.
France has an exclusive right to supply military equipment and training to the African military by deploying troops and intervening in the African countries to defend France’s interests.
Moreover, France’s former colonies are forced to use the colonial currency FCFA (the CFA franc) and to send France an annual balance report. Besides, they are obliged to ally only with France during a situation of war or crisis.
All in all, no wonder why French presidents and ministers are greeted by protests when they visit former French colonies in Africa.
A likely way ahead in Africa
Over the past 60 years France has maintained a disproportionate influence over its former African colonies. Despite being led by different presidents over the past six decades, the French government’s policy on Africa has been faithful to its neo-colonial roots , yearning for the lost empire.
France has guarded its interests in Africa through economic power, covert action and dozens of military interventions. France has intervened in sub-Saharan Africa on five different occasions in the recent years, in addition to using intelligence and surveillance operations and countless semi-permanent military campaigns. Most recently, France launched Operation Barkhane, an ongoing counter-terrorism initiative spanning five countries in Africa's Sahel region and involving more than 3,000 personnel. So it seems that France's military role in Africa will endure.
France has a clear understanding of its national interests in Africa and of the threats jeopardizing connectivity and supply chain: in particular airports and ports whose control ensures the continued flow of goods, military equipment and personnel between France and its former colonies. It is up to France to decide when and whether a regime merits protection as already happened in Sudan in 2008, in Chad in 2008 and in the Central African Republic in 2012.
Furthermore, France pushed heavily for intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi. The aim was to thwart Gaddafi's attempt to create a gold-backed African currency to supplant France as the dominant power in the Francophone Africa region. Gaddafi's gold and silver reserves were estimated at 143 tons of gold and a similar amount in silver: more than enough to pose a huge threat to the CFA French franc.
The role of French security policy in Africa has long been recognized as a critical factor in African politics and international relations. But is French involvement in Africa really in the interest of Africans, or French intervention continues to deny African political freedom and to sustain their current social, economic and political conditions? In fact policies portrayed as promoting stability and development can be factors of instability, dependency, domination and subordination.
When Guinea demanded independence in 1958, France unleashed its fury destroying schools, nurseries, public administration buildings, cars, books, medicine, research institute instruments, tractors; animals were killed and food in warehouses was burned or poisoned. This was meant to send a message to other colonies that the consequences for rejecting France would be high.
In March 2008, former French President Jacques Chirac said: “Without Africa, France will slide down into the rank of a third world power”. Chirac’s predecessor François Mitterrand prophesied in 1957 that: “Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century”.
Many Africans do maintain that the French have been at the frontline in the enslavement, colonisation and raping of their continent by stealing their gold, diamonds and other natural resources.
They also maintain that France colonial tax is bleeding Africa and feeding France.
France has good reasons to seek to improve its image. Numerous resentments have built-up against it due to political interference and armed interventions., not least the legacy of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The United Nations and the European Union should seriously take stock of such a situation. There is still the possibility to remedy the critical conditions of Western and Central Africa. France cannot afford anymore to be portrayed as an exploiter: it is high time to show the entire world that the French ideals and the motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, dating back to the French Revolution, are not only deeply embedded in France but also wherever France has a role to play and its interests are at stake.
These ideals, and the French Republic itself, cannot feel distant and empty to disaffected Africans who consider as fixed and tricked the French values imposed on them like a form of neocolonialism, and used as a pretext for discrimination.