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Unravelling the Threads: France's Quasi-Empire in Crisis

Ewan Edwards

France's influence in its West African colonies is slipping, potentially destroying its economy and diminishing its global foreign policy significance. No this is not a dispatch from the BBC World Service in the 1940s, but the stark reality of contemporary French imperialism which continues to exert control over fourteen West African nations.

 

The right to self-determination is universally recognised as a cornerstone of Western society and a governing principle of the United Nations. While it is often assumed that all former colonial states now enjoy this right, this assumption is far from accurate.


Despite the formal end of the French Empire's direct rule in 1946, the French Union emerged to replace it. Under the guise of local assemblies, these colonies were granted limited legislative and budgetary powers, but ultimate control resided in government officials in Paris. This status quo persisted until 1958 when, after a series of conflicts, a referendum was held within the French Union to transition to a presidential system of government. All colonies and Metropolitan France endorsed this transition, except for Guinea.

 

Even as France evolved away from traditional colonial rule, its underlying framework from 1945 to the present day has been rooted in the Franc of the Financial Community of Africa (CFA). This currency remains pivotal in the economic landscape of the fourteen West African countries that utilise it: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo. The CFA Franc maintains a fixed exchange rate, once tied to the Franc and now to the Euro.

 

By being tethered to the Euro, the nations utilising the CFA Franc find themselves without the autonomy to manage their own macroeconomic and monetary policies. Consider the Ivory Coast, where nearly 40% of its population grapples with food insecurity and lives below the poverty line; the country lacks the capability to foster its own economic growth hindering any possible efforts to enhance living standards.


Furthermore, any engagement in the foreign exchange market (FOREX) requires going through the Banque de France and the Euro. The direct exchange of the CFA Franc with most major global currencies is not possible. This lack of control over their own exchange rates places these countries at a disadvantage in international trade relationships, adding to the constraints put on their right to economic self-determination.

 

We should not then be surprised by the ’coup epidemic’ currently sweeping West African states such as Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali, and Niger. It is not just a consequence of local difficulties but fundamentally a widespread rejection of Françafrique (the sphere of French influence or control).


French hegemony in West Africa following the Second World War exemplifies an unwavering sense of entitlement to deny nations their rightful self-determination.


This persistent arrogance in foreign policy, well after other European powers have decolonized, stands as a key factor contributing to the growth of Russian and Chinese influence on the African continent.

 

This growing unity of the Global South under the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) coalitionshould not be underestimated. The significance of Africa, especially West African countries, have been central to Russia's strategic efforts to capitalise on Western Europe's missteps. There has been reports of Russian mercenary groups operating in Mali and Burkina Faso exacerbating tensions and fuelling anti-European sentiments.


Meanwhile, China has been steadily expanding its global footprint, with a particular focus on Africa through the Belt and Road Initiative. This has resulted in substantial investments in infrastructure projects across the African continent. France's reluctance to fully relinquish influence and territory in Africa has inadvertently played into the hands of both China and Russia. This ongoing shift in global authority and power dynamics is unmistakably profound and transformative.

 

The presence of imperial echoes in French politics is strikingly more palpable than in British politics. It would be unimaginable for a British MP to shout “go back to Africa” at a black MP in Parliament, but this happened in the French National Assembly only last year. While the British Empire has faced its fair share of scrutiny for heinous crimes, the debate over the merits and wrongs of empire in Britain largely belongs to the past. The Commonwealth is not some quasi-empire.

 

France’s imperial legacy still exerts a tangible influence today. But, In the face of growing anti-European sentiment and unity of the Global South, how much longer can this historical legacy persist?

 


Image: Arab News

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