France’s power games in Africa
BY DAVID CRONIN
Supporters of France’s military intervention in Mali want us to
applaud it as a great act of charity. François Hollande, their
argument goes, is protecting the government in Bamako from armed
extremists. The“free world” should be grateful that he has taken this
The problem with this “analysis” is that it is wrong.
Hollande may try to give the impression that he has launched some kind
of “humanitarian” mission. This idea falls apart when you realise
that the Malian authorities - which Hollande is so determined to help
- stand accused of many human rights violations. Amnesty International
has documented how the Malian security forces have carried out
extrajudicial executions of Touareg civilians, killings of farm
animals on which nomads depend for their livelihood and an
indiscriminate attack on a Touareg camp.
In reality, Hollande is pursuing a policy that can be traced back to
Charles de Gaulle, who believed that -- despite granting its colonies
independence - France must retain a strong influence in sub-Saharan
Indeed, the French elite seems to have had trouble accepting that it
no longer “owns” a big chunk of Africa. When the Cold War ended,
France had 10,000 troops and a number of military bases in Africa.
This presence has been largely retained, even if the pretexts that
“justified” it have disappeared. Recent history is also littered with
cases of France meddling in the continent: it undertook 45 military
operations in its former colonies between 1960 and 2005.
A glance at a map is sufficient to understand how Mali fits into
France‘s ambit. It borders other ex-colonies like Algeria, which
Hollande visited in December, accompanied by 40 senior businessmen,
and Niger, a major source of uranium used by the French nuclear firm
Total, the French energy giant, has indicated that there may be an
abundance of oil and gas to explore in northern Mali and neighbouring
Mauritania. Jean François Arrighi de Casanova, a Total representative,
has even spoken of a “new El Dorado” in that area.
Northern Mali is - according to the EU‘s foreign policy chief
Catherine Ashton - a hotbed “for all kinds of trafficking, drugs, arms
smuggling” by those “terrorists” (her word) that France is fighting.
One does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that the
French elite is more interested in preventing insurgents from
interfering with Total’s work than in championing Mali’s population.
It is interesting that Ashton is perturbed only about arms smuggling
and not the wider weapons trade. The latest official EU report on
weapons sales shows that France is the Union‘s top exporter, issuing
€9.9 billion worth of licenses in 2011. The Mali operation has
provided France with an opportunity to showcase its Mirage and Rafale
planes and Sagaie tanks.
I have no doubt that the insurgents in northern Mali have done
appalling things - including, it seems, recruiting child soldiers. But
is France solely motivated by revulsion at their human rights abuses?
Of course, it isn’t. France was willing to tolerate the activities of
insurgents in other parts of Africa, whenever it was deemed
politically expedient to do so. France had little difficulty with how
insurgents controlled the northern part of Côte d‘Ivoire between 2002
and 2011. In that case, the insurgents were described as “rebels”, not
“terrorists” in Europe. That was because they backed Alassane
Outtara, the one-time International Monetary Fund staffer who is now
his country’s president. France had been eager to have Outarra in
power. The official narrative says that France was acting against
the brutality of his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo. Yet there are good
reasons to surmise that France‘s real aim was to have someone in
office who could be relied on to look after its commercial interests,
particularly in Côte d’Ivoire’s electricity and water networks.
Some MEPs have lamented lately how the European Union has not
collectively rushed to assist France in Mali. France‘s neo-imperial
machinations have nonetheless left their mark on EU foreign policy.
In 2008, the Union undertook an operation in Chad that was presented
as a response to the refugee crisis caused by violence in Darfur,
western Sudan. It appeared, though, that the primary purpose of the
operation was to shore up the Chadian dictator Idriss Déby. More than
half of the troops deployed were from France - Chad‘s former colonial
overlord. To give the mission a fig-leaf of impartiality, an Irish
soldier was appointed its commander.
If France was truly committed to helping sub-Saharan Africa, it would
have honoured its decades-old pledge to devote at least 0.7% of its
gross domestic product to alleviating global poverty. As things
stand, France allocates less than 0.5% of its GDP for that purpose.
And the proportion of its development aid going to vital health and
education projects is below 20%. The life expectancy of a Malian is
just 51 years, compared to 81 for a French person.
By contrast, France spends more than 2% of its GDP on the military.
Despite how it was vilified in the US a decade ago for Jacques
Chirac‘s opposition to the Iraq war, France rivals Britain for the
title of Western Europe’s most trigger-happy nation. Two years ago, it
was the first to attack Libya. Now it has bombed Mali on equally
Let us be clear: France’s policies towards Africa are not about
altruism. They are about power.