Photo illustration by John Lyman

France is Running Out of Pressure Points in Francophone Africa

As a new international order emerges, France faces growing challenges from its former African colonies. Several of them are seeking to reduce or end France’s longstanding influence and forge closer ties with other global players. However, France’s influence may still endure in the African nations that use its language and currency, the CFA franc. For that reason, France will employ all possible methods to keep its hold on these nations.

Former French President François Mitterrand once said: “Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century.” This statement reflects the importance of Africa for France’s international role and influence. However, France’s relationship with Africa has been marred by controversies and criticisms, such as its support for authoritarian regimes, its meddling in domestic affairs, and its exploitation of natural resources. Some experts, such as Xavier Renou, argue that France has several motives for maintaining its presence and influence in Africa, such as preserving its global status, resisting American and Chinese pressures, securing access to strategic resources, and benefiting from a privileged position.

France has tried to adopt a new approach to Africa based on dialogue, partnership, and cooperation with civil society groups and African youth. This was obvious during the Africa-France summit in Montpellier in 2021, where President Emmanuel Macron invited hundreds of young people from different African countries to discuss various issues and challenges. However, that new approach has faced challenges and skepticism, as some African intellectuals and activists have accused France of perpetuating its neo-colonial policies and interests.

France has long looked to maintain its influence in Africa, especially in the regions where French is spoken. One of the ways it has done so is by promoting the French language and culture through La Francophonie, which brings together countries and territories that share the French language. This institution has been a means for France to have an eye over French-speaking African countries for decades.

Although challenging, language is a soft geopolitical tool that influences how countries interact. France is undoubtedly the dominant nation in the French-speaking world, despite the economic success of other countries that use the language, namely Belgium and Switzerland.

After Mandarin, English, Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi, the Francophone population is the sixth largest, with 274 million primary and secondary speakers dispersed throughout the world. Considering this, in November 2017, Macron, while addressing students in Burkina Faso, said French “might be the first language in Africa and perhaps even the world.” This illustrates the projection that 750 million people will speak French, compared to 220 million people in 2010. Therefore, French is the language with the most significant growth rate worldwide.

This is remarkable, given that the French population isn’t growing. However, sub-Saharan African republics comprise 21 of the 29 countries with French as an official language, and these countries are also seeing rapid population growth. This development may lead to France’s ticket to a new global hegemony in the language. Therefore, by 2050, when the Francophone market share increases from 3% to 8%, four out of every five French speakers will be African.

France’s primary tool to influence French-speaking Africa remains the CFA franc. The Franc of the French Colonies in Africa, now known as the CFA franc, was established on December 26, 1945, by Charles de Gaulle. It was created due to France’s desire to promote economic unity among the colonies it ruled, giving it more control over its resources, and financial and political systems.

Today, the CFA franc is a currency used by 14 African countries that France formerly colonized. France claims that the currency provides monetary and financial stability to these countries by fixing its exchange rate to the euro. However, a principle of economic cooperation between the French and those countries obliges CFA franc utility member states to deposit 50% of their foreign exchange reserves from their foreign exchange reserves.

Many African economists, such as Kako Nubukpo, argue that the currency hinders their economic development and sovereignty by imposing the monetary policy of the European Central Bank and giving France too much control over their finances. Eco, a new currency, is planned to replace the CFA franc in 2027 for the 15 members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), reducing France’s influence in the region.

France’s strategy of using the French language and currency to maintain a foothold in French-speaking Africa is not sustainable. While French is still widely spoken in Africa, English is becoming the dominant language in education, the tech sector, and business. Many Francophone countries have realized this and have joined the Commonwealth, such as Togo and Gabon. France’s attempt to expand its influence and diplomatically compel governments to adopt French as a new official language might not work.

The proposed single currency for West Africa would significantly affect France’s financial, economic, and diplomatic ties with its former colonies and the region. It would also undermine France’s global ambitions, which mostly rely on its historical and cultural influence in many Francophone countries in Africa.

France’s image among Africans, especially in French-speaking countries is fairly bleak. Its recurrent paternalistic attitude, arrogance, passive support for authoritarian regimes, and disregard for African people’s concerns are severe obstacles to any effective strategy on the continent. Moreover, the arduous competition France faces from other global powers such as China, and the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine conflict will decide the pace of France’s future challenges on the African continent.