When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Burkina Faso this week, he was not particularly well received. A grenade was thrown at a French military vehicle hours before his arrival, injuring three people, and he was heckled during a speech he made at the University of Ouagadougou.
The marred reception came weeks after an outraged Ivoirian citizen said to me: “The French ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire is more powerful than the Ivoirian president”.
Many West Africans are angry because they feel France as a colonial power never really left the region. Much like other colonial powers, France began to cede control over the eight territories it held in West Africa in the 1950s, and by 1960 its West African colonies had gained independence.
But critics say Paris remains omnipresent.
This week, Macron declared he is different. He said he belongs to a new generation of French leaders who will build partnerships with Africa rather than tell it what to do.
The French president was characteristically erudite in his speech and handled the barbed questions well. He has no interest in resolving Burkina Faso’s electricity difficulties, he said and would prefer to leave this for the Burkinabe president to handle.
But while Macron, with that light-hearted declaration, cleverly pointed out why France has no interest in participating in West African politics, he left many things unsaid.
FOOLISH TO ADOPT AN OVERLY ANTI-IMPERIALIST STANCE
France continues to have an extraordinary level of control over the currency circulating in the West African Monetary Union (UMOA). The Franc CFA, which initially stood for “communauté financière d’Afrique” but was later nicknamed the “colonies françaises d’Afrique,” is pegged to the euro.
The two central banks within the UMOA are nominally in charge of administering the currency, but France has veto power over their decisions.
Meanwhile, the monetary zone requires a certain level of foreign reserves to be retained by member countries, but these reserves are all kept in the French Treasury.
France also has a considerable military presence in West Africa. Operation Barkhane, which is based in N’Djamena in Chad, employs 3,000 French troops. Their mission is to prevent terrorism from spreading in West Africa, and the mission has been heavily deployed in Mali to prevent Islamist militant groups from gaining a foothold in the region.
Numerous other French missions have been deployed in West Africa in the past 10 years, including Operation Licorne and Operation Serval, in Cote d’Ivoire and Mali, respectively.
In his speech this week, Macron defended France’s intervention in the Sahel, saying it was the right thing to do but that he hoped a new regional mission would be fully operational soon to tackle Islamist militancy. He would be interested in making amendments to the Franc CFA, he said, admitting that it was outdated and in need of adjustments.
But with respect to the currency, the president also said it would be foolish to adopt an overly anti-imperialist attitude at the expense of sound monetary policy.
A SELF-PERPETUATING CYCLE
That line summarises France’s relationship with its former colonies. They are so wound up in one another’s destinies that while Africans may demand a complete French exit from their countries, this is now, as Macron suggested, very difficult and in some ways undesirable.
The Franc CFA represents symbolic power over the West African people who use it, such that protests have begun to emerge in which people appear to burn or eat the currency. And yet, its presence is useful.
Pegging the Franc CFA to the euro reduces volatility and ensures some macroeconomic stability despite frequent political uncertainty in the region. In terms of fiscal deficits and inflation, the UMOA often outperforms many sub-Saharan African countries.
Similarly, where many West Africans call for the immediate departure of all French troops from the region, this is a rather more delicate proposition in practice.
The departure of the French military would leave a huge security gap that West African countries could fill only with great difficulty. Thus, in the near term, it remains preferable for the security of West African citizens to retain a French presence.
And thus, the cycle perpetuates itself.
Paradoxically, Macron himself summed up this situation when, responding to a tricky question, he said President Roch Marc Kabore of Burkina Faso could leave the monetary union whenever he wanted.
Of course, the difficulty with this is that while Kabore, and indeed most West Africans, would like to end their former colonial power’s control over their currency, doing so would be hugely detrimental to their daily lives.
This difficult post-colonial relationship may be changing as France’s dynamic new president seeks to move on from the country’s colonial legacy.
There may be changes in the way the currency is used, and the tenor of discussions between France and West Africa may evolve as France comes to see West Africa as more of a partner than a younger sibling.
But it will be some time before Africans can say with certainty that they would be better off using a currency controlled by their own governments and that only their own military should protect their soil.