Exploring the strategic occupation of African countries colonised by France, and why they can't let go 60 years on.

I am writing this post because I came across a term 'Francafrique' which is a historical term, originally coined by Charles De Gaulle, and used by the first president of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. In 1955 , he used this term to describe his country's close ties with France. I found this term quite fascinating because as I had written in my previous blog post Inside Britain's Colonial Mind - there was mention of the French, who tried to make native Africans an extension of their people. France aimed to be a parent country to their colonies; they wanted Africans to speak like the French, behave like the French and in turn, campaign for French initiatives. It was not long until I reached a conclusion that many African countries who were involved with France during colonialism, internalised and succumbed to the French way of oppression.

Going back to that term that Houphouët-Boigny used, not to take it completely out of context because I know he used it to describe the countries close relations to France. But more items in this article will reveal to you why the use of the term, struck me as a term of internalised oppression, and ownership on France's behalf. Therefore, in this post, I will outline the *post* colonial activities of France and how they still try to keep a hold over their ex-colonies in the name of "relations".

The Notion of Franceafrique

Firstly, we should start with listing which countries were colonised by France as this would help, for background knowledge. The below image displays the French colonial empire.

As the French dived in to the Scramble for Africa commencing in the late 1880's, they conquered large areas and at first ruled them as part of their already existing Senegal colony or as independent entities. These territories were controlled by French Army officers and dubbed “Military Territories”, but in as we approached the late 1890s, the French govt sought the expansion of it's colonial territories and transferred all the territories to the west of Gabon to a single governor based in Senegal (Benneyworth, 2011). Essentially, the headquarters for French colonial Africa was Dakar, Senegal.

Charles de Gaulle, former French President and soldier who helped liberate France from the Nazi regime in World War II (Free France movement), believed that ‘‘that French world power and French power in Africa were inextricably linked and mutually confirming’’ (Charbonneau 2008, p.281); meaning he believed that the French needed to be powerful in Africa to maintain their power in the world. De Gaulle’s aimed to maintain the French hold through his Communauté Franco-Africaine (African Franco Community) policy. One of the ways they tried to maintain the colonial ties were through threatening African countries with the same fate as Guinea. I will give you some background of what the French meant by this threat in relation to Guinea: Brave politician Ahmed Sékou Touré, was a nationalist Guinean politician who spearheaded the removal of French rule in Guinea, and the plight towards independence. Consequently, Guinea were punished by the French for this move; French administration took to removing every thing of value which represented what they called the benefits from French colonization (Koutonin, 2014) - to effectively dismantle the future growth prospect of the country.

The purpose of this outrageous act was to send a clear message to all other colonies that the consequences for rejecting France would be very high. Slowly fear spread through the African elite, and none after the Guinea events ever found the courage to follow the example of Sékou Touré, whose slogan was “We prefer freedom in poverty to opulence in slavery.”

What's important to note, is that De Gaulle was not deluded in his assertions. Africans knew that they were the force holding up the mighty France. A great example of this, can be shown in one image alone: A painting by an artist from the Republic of Congo. His name was Frederic Trigo Piula, and the piece of art in question was called 'Ngollowa' (shown below).

In the painting, De Gaulle is held up by two African hands. With no arms and no legs on the torso, he relies on the support of the African people to hold him up. One of the figures holding him up is Felix Eboue of Chad, who helped put the weight of African colonies behind the Free France movement. In one of my next blog posts, we will get to read more about the ways in which the African colonies actually helped to liberate France by fighting for them in the Great War (WW1), and it seems as though they were called upon again in WWII. Hence why, the second figure holding up De Gaulle is what was known as a Senegalese 'Tirailleur ' - which was a branch of the French army composed of Africans. In Piula's painting, he reimagines a concept of a French painter, Eugène Delacroix's work titled 'Liberty Leading the People'. In Piula's version, the background of the canvas displays native Congolese people charging through, holding up the flag of the Republic of Congo. Below are the two images side by side for comparison.

I watched a great video on this painting, it is not too long but includes more detail about this painting of De Gaulle, the video can be watched here. I will link it at the bottom of the post too.

So I say all that to say, although France accepted decolonisation, the relationship with their former colonies was something that they did not want to dissolve, using social, economic and security agreements to maintain close ties. Some would argue that the break up of French colonies into their own independent states, made them more reliant on France as they were when they were all unified under French rule (Benneyworth, 2011). Subsequently, ‘‘decolonisation did not mark an end, but rather a restructuring of the imperial relationship’’ (Chafer cited in Charbonneau 2008, p.281), and we see this in Françafrique today, through the political, security, economic and cultural relations that although may be withered, are still a fundamental line of connection between France and its previous 'objects'.

The 'Colonial Cornerstone' of the French

Just like many other European countries who are audacious and whose foundations are built upon imperialist views, France took to colonising Africa to "civilise". I honestly think I have read that reasoning so many times it is exhausting. But we have to understand their thinking when they set about these actions, despite how warped they may be. The French called their colonial mission "Mission Civilisatrice" ; in efforts to "civilise" African societies, the French committed to the development of infrastructure, especially in railway transportation and healthcare provision. But bare in mind, these commitments were not carried out by French workmen, they were carried out by natives who were coerced into forced labour. Beyond all this, the French truly believed that they had an edge over their European counterparts. They swore they were improving the quality of life of African natives, through social engineering, politics and education, but often in the promotion of French interests - nothing new.

Although the French were subscribed to the notion that slavery was no longer recognised as legal from 1905, they still abused forced labour. The French were the most delusional colonisers in my opinion, because they believed that because their use of forced labour was regulated, this supposedly made it less exploitative. They were audacious enough, to push this narrative that their developing of infrastructure was an incentive to instil a "productive work ethic into the workshy natives"(Conklin 1998, p.438). I am very confused by this, who gave the French the impression that Africans did not work? Please because I would love to know...

Throughout their time colonising Africa, they also contradicted themselves by declaring a decree in 1903 , further reformed in 1912 which called for greater respect of the indigenous legal customs of West African groups. Yet, the general approach was always that customary law was to be respected so long as it did not conflict with French standards of ‘civilisation’ nor impeded the hoped-for progress towards that ideal (Conklin 1997, pp.119-120). In other words, they were allowing Africans to live by "their own law" so long as African people did not divulge from the ideal behaviour that was deemed acceptable by the French. Remember at the beginning when I said that the French aimed to be a paternal colony of African countries? They wanted Africans to idolise the French and their values, so complete autonomy over legal customs was never on the cards.

The French Republican sentiment, influenced how the local African chiefs and their people were viewed. Ultimately, the French deemed African chiefs as 'tyrannical and in need of liberation'. However, similar to how the British did it, the French still found it necessary to use methods of indirect rule, to maintain many chiefs' positions. They needed *some* chiefs, to assist in tax collection and enforcement of French regulations. It was actually common for some chiefs to take advantage of reduced French manpower during World War 1, to rebel, often with their people behind them, who really did not have any regard for this French ideal (Conklin 1998, pp.427-428). In essence, what France was hoping for was full assimilation into African societies, through its cultural and linguistic agenda. They wanted the Africans to act like the French, speak like the French and live like the French - almost like creating another France in another continent. Something about that really rubs me the wrong way, its sadistic that you would want to wipe out another countries cultural identity and feel like you have a home away from home... when the fact of the matter is that that is NOT your home.

Despite this perverted need to convert Africans into an extension of France, the French failed miserably in their assimilation targets because they never provided Africans with adequate resources or educational programming anyway. Up to 1950, the illiteracy rates in French colonial countries were between 95-99% (Cumming 2006, p.158). This was not the case in France, so why did they not actually educate these African people up the same standard? I will leave you to come to your own conclusion as to why you think that is.

According to Benneyworth (2011), if there is a theme running through France’s colonial era it is one of trying to forge an African character that adhered to native identity melded with a French ideal, with the moral compromises necessary to realise this vision made more acceptable by seasoning them with claims to social progress.

France was essentially a country, that ruled over the ideologically incompatible notion of ‘subjects’ rather than citizens. So they wanted to create a mini world that subscribed to French idealistic values. French colonial mentality was, a product of the times where imperialism prevailed and certain measures to achieve it were dressed as unquestionably positive for the recipient subjects. This protective mentality that France took, formed a strong connection with its colonies, ensuring French intent to maintain future influence on them.

The Ghost of Colonial France

France have been criticised for their interference in the events of their ex-colonies, particularly where politics and economics are involved; old habits die hard when French interests are concerned. More specifically, the French interest that never allows them to completely step back from their colonial subjects have often revolved around energy resources and raw materials.

  • In the 2009 Gabon presidential election, France stood accused by an angry populace, of allowing Ali Ben Bongo to defraud the electorate, echoing the support it gave his oil-wealth plundering, anti-democratic father Omar (Crumley, 2009).

Such interference, is typical of France throughout their history since de-colonisation. Just as they did with the chiefs of the colonial past, handpicking them to control others in their regions for the pursuit of the French ideal. France has clearly tried to maintain its interests by influencing African internal affairs.

  • Another example of France's interference would be when in 1993 France, via state owned oil company Elf-Aquitaine, sought to influence the Congo parliamentary elections by denying essential loans to the country, that were needed to pay civil servants (Martin 1995, p.15-16).

A huge shortcoming of France's post-colonial behaviour, has been their military presence. This, in addition to a broad license to intervene through defence agreements with nearly half of Africa’s states, all helped France to become known as the "gendarme of Africa", meaning a military officer (in French) (Charbonneau 2008, p.282). France currently have military bases originally found in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Djibouti, Gabon, Cameroon and the Central African Republic. They had assigned themselves the responsibility to ‘defend’ Africa from Communism during the Cold War (which was a war between the US of A and the Soviet Union, after WW1). However, the development of those French military bases and the consistent French military presence in Africa, is riddled with French interests in maintaining regional hegemony.

  • Another example of France's political and military interferences would be the 1994 Rwandan genocide. French forces facilitated the training and expansion of the Forces Armées Rwandaises from 1990-1993, and provided huge shipments of arms (McNulty 2000, pp. 109–110). Though "stabilisation" was the primary motivation of their interference. France effectively if unwittingly helped militarise Rwanda, prior to a pre-planned massacre.

Given these examples, it is little wonder why the Franco-African environment is deemed ripe for "entrenching mutually beneficial relationships and influence" (Crumley, 2009b). From the early ties between Felix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast and French elites, to President Sarkozy’s (of France) recent trips to former colonies with business entourages in tow (Crumley 2009b). These close ties have made the reform of how Françafrique operates, difficult. These shady relations do not only frustrate Africans, but also French diplomats, such as Jean-Christophe Rufin, who was recently ambassador to Senegal. He believes that ‘‘the old, shadowy, compromising, cynical habits of trading political and business favours has just gotten more manipulative and opaque’’ (Crumley 2010), which I completely agree with. France has meddled so much in its former colonies' affairs, they are blurring the lines of decolonisation, almost 60 years on! All they have done, is replace direct rule for substantial influence, so no they may not be colonial masters anymore, but what happens in the Franceafrique region is far from a decisive break from the past.

The reluctant withdraw

Just when you want to give France, some credit, they have continued to display why they are reluctant to let go of their colonial influence. After the cold war, France did show some recognition that some of their military deployments were redundant and unnecessary. They tried to reduce troop numbers and close some military bases, with the exception of forces stationed in "politically volatile countries". I'm keen to know what the French consider a politically volatile country in Africa, because if that is the only thing holding them back from deploying thousands of troops into those countries, then I would say almost every African country is at risk of France knocking on their door sooner or later.

France have also comprised a Rapid Action Force (La Force d’action rapide), which is a 44,500 man force established in 1993, designed to respond to military operations (Martin 1995, p.13). A recent example of it in use is in 2016, where France kept a rapid reaction force in Central African Republic for "after it's mission ended in the troubled country" said François Hollande (former president of France). The Elysee (French presidential office) said in a statement that the force has a “capacity for military intervention at short notice” and may “be mobilized at the request of the Central African Republic government in case of serious threats against peace or the country’s institutions”(Karuri, 2016). Since the Rapid Action Force was established, between 1997 and 2002, France launched 33 operations in Africa, even though ten of those had mandates that fell under the command of the United Nations. Still France insisted that they intervene, suggesting that broader humanitarian concerns have become increasingly important to France (Charbonneau 2008, p.283). It sounds like they just have a very itchy trigger finger to use this fancy army of 44,000+ in African affairs, if you ask me.

Particularly after the scandal of the Rwandan genocide, it has been in the best interest of France to improve its image. So, France has been accepting of certain withdrawals, in pursuit of minding their own business, simply put. They agreed to the pull-out of 1200 troops and transfer of base sovereignty to Senegal in 2010 (Bamford 2010). Imagine, they gave a country control of its own region, they gave it BACK to them. Unbelievable. Yet, a coloniser will always be a coloniser, and France still retains the will and capacity to intervene just like they did in Ivory Coast when French forces, under Force Licorne, assisted in overthrowing Laurent Gbagbo, albeit with UN endorsement in 2010-11 (Howden 2011). When will they learn?

In conclusion, France has successfully used its security presence since decolonisation to exert influence in African countries where it still has interests. They have desperately clung onto maintaining both regional hegemony and its own vision of order and stability. These are mirror to the colonial behaviours they used to show when trying to push the 'French ideal'. While the French interest in Africa is still very potent, the rationales for maintaining substantial presences are weakening; initiatives by the African Union also threaten to further weaken France’s interventionist reflex, such as the 2004 creation of the Peace and Security Council and its African Standby Force to – supposedly – allow Africans to intervene in their own affairs (Williams 2009, p.614). Nevertheless, Africa remains a significant export market and target for French investment after colonisation. Between 2000-2008, trade levels between France and the African region as a whole (inclusive of Northern, Sub-Saharan, Eastern and Southern, and CFA zones) were consistently in the billions of euros.

To be continued... that's all for this post! It was a lengthy one and I think it will flow nicely into my next blog post that I will be touching on the use of Africans as part of the black army comprised by France. I hope you enjoyed this blog post and learned something new!

Thanks for reading.

- SS

If you did not read the thread on Twitter, you can read it here:

Be sure to follow me on Twitter: @ssozinha__

Follow this blog on Instagram: by.ssozinha


Conklin, A. L. (1997). A mission to civilize : the republican idea of empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930.Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Charbonneau, B., (2008). France and the new imperialism: security policy in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Benneyworth, I.J., (2011). The Ongoing Relationship Between France and its Former African Colonies. online. Jun, 11, p.2011.

Crumley, B. (2009b). Behind President Sarkozy’s Africa Trip

Cumming, G (2006). Exporting the Republican Model? A critique of France’s historic mission in Africa. In: Cole, A. & Raymond, G. Redefining the French Republic.Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 156-174

Howden, D. (2011). UN moves to stop another bloodbath in Ivory Coast

McNulty, M. (2000). French arms, war and genocide in Rwanda. Crime, Law & Social Change 33: pp. 105–129

Karuri, B., (2016) France to deploy a rapid reaction force in Central African Republic [online]

Koutonin, M, R., (2014) 14 African Countries Forced by France to Pay Colonial Tax For the Benefits of Slavery and Colonization [online]