Paris Under Pressure:

The dilemma of France’s presence in Africa, especially in the Sahel region, has escalated in recent years. Expressions of the mounting popular condemnation of France’s role in the Sahel vary, ranging from incidents of theft targeting French economic interests and commercial institutions and accusations that France acquires dubious contracts and imposes exorbitant prices, to the interception and blockade of military convoys and growing demonstrations against the French military presence, transmitted by audio and video across media and social media networks and interspersed with calls for the overthrow of France.

Propaganda Trends

The propaganda against France’s role in the Sahel countries is embodied in several points that are being strongly promoted. We can point to the most important of them, as follows:

1. Highlighting France’s role in destabilizing countries: The leaders of Francophone African countries find themselves trapped between domestic demands for more freedom from France and keeping France from interfering in their domestic affairs, and pressures from the French authorities in order to achieve their security and economic interests. Notably, most of those leaders kept their positions for decades with French support and know full well the consequences of opposing French will and that the failure to respond to France often leads to the destabilization of their rule or even their overthrow. 

In this regard, anti-French propaganda promotes the idea that opposition to Paris may mean the destabilization of domestic rule, as some historical events testify. This happened, for example, to the former president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, who dared to say to General de Gaulle that "poverty with freedom is preferable to opulence with slavery." Thereafter, French intelligence decided to work to weaken Touré after his turn to the Soviet Union. This also happened to the former Burkinabé president, Thomas Sankara, who was close to the Soviet Union and Cuba and changed the name of his country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. In 1987, French intelligence supported a coup against Sankara. Also fresh in the mind is France’s military intervention in 2011 in Ivory Coast to bring Alassane Ouattara to the presidency, after a bloody election crisis that was interpreted as settling scores with his rival, former President Laurent Gbagbo. Notably, given the consolidation of anti-French sentiment, some African leaders have recently begun to prefer angering France over showing cooperation with it in order to avoid damage from domestic, popular resentment.

2. Viewing the French military presence as an occupying force: The view of France’s military presence in Africa has shifted remarkably. Opposition to it originated in elite and intellectual circles and has become widespread among the public and on the street. After ten years of intervention, French soldiers, who were seen as heroes in 2013 after they managed to stop the spread of jihadist groups in Mali, are now unwelcome in many countries, especially Mali and Burkina Faso. France was forced to announce the evacuation of its military bases in those two countries on February 17th, 2022 (5,500 French soldiers in Mali as part of Operation Barkhane) and February 23rd, 2022 (400 soldiers in Burkina Faso). Even the operation to redeploy these forces, by transferring them to other countries that remain French allies in that region, was not with complications. In a joint statement in February 2023, four major labor unions in Niger (one of the redeployment destinations) demanded the dismantling of foreign military bases as soon as possible and the unconditional departure of all illegitimate occupation forces on Nigerian territory.

3. Suspecting collaboration with terrorists: Some criticisms directed at France go so far as to accuse it of conspiring with terrorist groups with the goal of further tightening its control over the Sahel countries. These criticisms arise from questions surrounding how to explain France’s failure to defeat the armed groups despite all its military and intelligence capabilities. In the mind of its proponents, this suspicion of collaboration incriminates the strategy that France publicly claims to follow to confront jihadist movements. This strategy—based on the tout sécuritaire (total security) approach that rejects the option of a political solution to address the crisis plaguing the Sahel countries—is accompanied by increasing terrorist attacks. How can France publicly reject negotiations with these armed groups—on the grounds that they are terrorists and there can be no dialogue with terrorism—while it is secretly collaborating with them?

In addition, in October 2022, the ruling regime in Mali complained to the UN, accusing France of arming terrorists and claiming that it had proof of this. Prior to this, in December 2019, video montages circulated on social media that tried to suggest that French forces supplied motorcycles to fighters from one of the terrorist groups in Mali. Despite denials from both the Malian and French armies, this did not prevent the growing popularity of this idea.

4. Evoking France’s colonial past: Anti-French propaganda attempts to strike at French credibility by showing the incoherency of its positions and categorizing them as double standards and double-speak. For example, under the pretext of respecting democratic values, France has questioned the legitimacy of the regimes arising from recent military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, while recognizing Mahamat Idriss Déby as the president of Chad despite the fact that he also came to power by a military coup in April 2021. This raises questions about the reality of French support, which appears to be granted or withheld according to the regimes’ alignment with French interests.

This picture, and others, has prompted new generations in West Africa to evoke France’s colonial past, with some focusing on it in order to mobilize against France by holding it responsible for delaying those countries and hindering their progress. Planting this idea in the mind is enough to motivate the popular struggle against any manifestation of French presence, whether military, diplomatic, or even commercial.

France’s Approach

Paris is trying to examine the escalating wave of propaganda against it in an attempt to interpret and address it. The most prominent perspectives arising from these efforts can be summarized as follows:

1. Dealing with propaganda from the perspective of competition for influence: At the Francophonie Summit in Tunisia in November 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron criticized some "powers" that want to sully France’s image in Africa. Meanwhile, in December 2022, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna clearly pointed to Russia’s role in this issue, stating that demonstrators were waving Russian flags several days after the latest coup in Burkina Faso and chanting anti-France slogans, which raised concerns.

Most French circles that are following the worsening anti-French sentiment believe that the role of Russian propaganda, though important, should not be cause to ignore what other countries, like China and Turkey, are doing in this sphere. China has adopted rhetoric similar to Russia’s in Africa but engages in less propaganda, while Turkey focuses on accusing France of Islamophobia and has greatly exploited the issue of the murder of Samuel Paty to accuse France of racism.

Nevertheless, Russia remains the most active and effective agent of pressure (according to the aforementioned viewpoint) on French influence via its media and social media that it manages—and trains activists to manage—by citing fictitious sources that cannot be verified and focusing on controversial topics, such as covering the French soldiers’ involvement in rapes in the Central African Republic.

It is worth noting that Russia stepped up its propaganda campaigns in Africa against France, and the West as a whole, at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, drawing attention to the issue of African students left trapped and isolated from any help after the military conflict erupted in Ukraine. From behind these campaigns, Russia seeks to avoid attempts to isolate it on the international stage and to reduce the circle of countries that agree to go along with the West in imposing sanctions on Russia. This was perhaps evident in the fact that, in the vote on the March 2022 UN resolution calling for condemnation of Russia and immediate withdrawal of its troops from Ukraine, almost half of the countries that did not support this resolution were from Africa.

2. Emphasizing the proliferation of Pan-Africanism: A wide swath of French observers believe that the harshest criticisms of French policy in Africa come from African activists who rally under the banner of a broad intellectual current calling for the African unity and strengthened bonds of solidarity among Africans, known as Pan-Africanism or the African nation. Some of these activists coordinate their positions on social media networks and through television appearances in order to expose the neo-colonialist practices and methods used by France and influence their tens of thousands of youthful followers.

Some French analysts assert that the strategy of some of these activists has been carefully designed to focus on one specific goal, which is to tarnish France’s image, thus raising questions about their connection to Russia. France’s adoption of the idea that certain parties are manipulating Africans was highlighted by French President Emmanuel Macron during his meeting with French ambassadors in September 2022, when he stated that the African continent has become the preferred laboratory for launching attacks on France.

3. Formulating new policies: Some French viewpoints call for learning from the series of political and diplomatic setbacks in Africa and translating that into practical steps, such as not being in the front row for military confrontations so that this presence is not seen as an occupying power, as well as not making any move on the ground without getting agreement from the local authorities. France must also be alert to the sensitivity raised by the appearance of French soldiers wearing their official uniforms during cooperation missions inside African countries.

Likewise, the young generations in Africa do not want to repeat the Françafrique experiment, in which France treated its former colonies as if it were their guardian and interfered in the economic, political, and military spheres in order to transfer every possible gain and raw material to the benefit of France and its allies. Perhaps the new African policy announced by the French president during a February 2023 press conference is trying to hint at this shift. This policy contains a plan to reduce the number of French troops in Africa in a balanced fashion in the coming months and to rename military bases and installations and convert some of them into academies run in partnership with the African countries where they are located.

4. Ensuring continuity in a different way: Some believe that Macron’s announcement is not a break with the past so much as a continuation, but in a different way. That is, Macron has remained loyal to himself and to the policy of en même temps (at the same time), in which he balances diplomats’ and elites’ vision for the need to break with France’s military past on the African continent, which harms France’s relationship with African counties, and France’s strategic interest in not wanting to lose other spheres of influence in its backyard (pré carrée), after Mali, Burkina Faso, and Central Africa, by permanently closing its military bases.

5. Orienting toward non-Francophone African countries: Amid the hardship and major reversals suffered by France within its historical sphere of influence in the Sahel and West Africa, and given the difficulty of confronting the rising anti-French sentiment within that sphere, France’s option may be to move toward building new partnerships with non-Francophone countries in Africa that were not subject to previous French colonialism.

Based on this assumption, observers strongly supported the inclusion of Angola, the third-largest economy on the continent, on French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent African tour in March 2023. The success of France’s cooperation with Angola may lead to further generalizing and broadening this model, whereby France can offer Angola, or similar countries, expertise in agriculture and manufacturing in exchange for gains in terms of energy and expansion in Africa.

In conclusion, while some French approaches prefer to see the spread of anti-French sentiment in Africa only as the result of negative propaganda spread by rivals for influence, especially Russia, other approaches believe that part of the responsibility for this lies with France’s performance in that region and that it is necessary to correct this performance and replace the occupation of territory with that of hearts and minds.