September was not a good month for French President Emmanuel Macron. First, he had to deal with the bomb dropped on him by France’s closest allies — the US and Britain — who had jointly muscled in on a deal that France had signed with Australia for the supply of a dozen nuclear-propelled submarines. Macron and the entire French diplomacy was left staring in disbelief when the new “AUKUS” partnership announced that the $65 billion deal with France was off and now it was the UK and US that would supply the subs.
Even as Macron was trying to deal with the unexpected situation in the Indo-Pacific, other crises were either brewing or erupted, this time far closer home, in west and northern Africa, where within a matter of days, the French saw a series of close relationships turn sour. France was suddenly in a very public spat with countries ranging from Mali and Chad in west Africa to Algeria and Morocco in the north.
Even as France was accusing the AUKUS countries of backstabbing it, Mali accused France of abandoning it in the midst of an ongoing battle with a clutch of extremist organizations ranging from Daesh to Al-Qaeda. The French, in turn, said Mali had engaged Russian mercenary outfit the Wagner Group to help in the battle and it was not willing to play along with this.
The relationship with neighboring Chad, which was almost entirely a French colony for over 150 years, has also been going through the rough and tumble for the past few months, especially as the French began drawing down their ill fated and barely effective antiterror military operation in the Sahel region.
France has deployed over 5,500 soldiers for the past eight years to counter the spread of Daesh and Al-Qaeda in the Sahel region. But Paris has little to show for its efforts as the terrorists have been killing thousands of civilians as well as local troops, while also claiming the lives of 55 French soldiers.
The announcement by Macron in June of a drawdown to Barkhane marked a complete reversal by the president since his election in 2017. Soon after taking charge at the Elysée, Macron had announced a broad initiative for the Sahel region and had also invited leaders of the entire region to Paris for an all-encompassing summit.
Besides talking about development in the region, Macron also significantly enhanced French military engagement in west Africa. However, as his first term comes to a close, facing a strong challenge from the farright, Macron has been forced to abandon the Sahel and bring the curtains down on a military campaign that has cost over $2 billion and has never been popular at home.
The military disaster reflects French challenges in a region that Paris has long seen as its backyard and an opportunity to showcase France as a global power with a lot of influence beyond its borders. Even though most of the countries in north and west Africa have been independent for nearly 60 years, France has never really had a clean break from the continent, keeping its interests and interference handy over the decades. It was a common parlance in Paris that whenever there is a coup d’etat in any former French colony, one aircraft would ferry the deposed leader to exile in Paris and the same plane would leave with the new leader who has just finished his exile in France to head back home.
France has also been accused of using its military and monetary might to install or depose leaders — depending on who would do its bidding — giving lucrative contracts to French business or its political leaders.
Even as it was still trying to get out of the Sahel quicksand, France got involved in another verbal spat with some African nations. In a sudden move, France said it would dramatically cut the number of visas issues to nationals of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. It justified its decision by saying that the three former colonies were not doing enough to allow illegal immigrants to return. France said it was “a drastic decision, and unprecedented, but one made necessary by the fact that these countries are refusing to take back nationals who we do not want or cannot keep in France.” Both Algeria and Morocco reacted furiously to the move and accused the French of not telling the full truth.
Though Macron’s moves in west and north Africa may appear to be independent of each other, his actions in various African countries seem to have been prompted more by events at home rather than overseas. With just over six months before the presidential elections, Macron is facing heat from all sides. For a long while he has been trailing far-right leader Marine Le Pen in opinion polls. However, in the past few weeks there havebeen dramatic changes in the political scenario in France with the emergence of another far-right candidate, columnist Eric Zemmour, whose anti-Muslim and anti-migrant comments make Le Pen seem like a gentle nun in the church.
The French politicians seem to realize that there is a hard shift to the right, at least among the candidates and their statements, pushing Macron to take decisions that he expects to go down well with at least a section of French voters.
While some African leaders may be willing to understand and ignore his actions and comments as those propelled by domestic compulsions rather than a drastic shift in the official stance of France, the damage caused by these actions is unlikely to disappear or be made good once the elections are over.
France needs to make a clean break with its policies towards its former colonies and start afresh, instead of again using Africa as a pawn for its own short-term interests.
Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group