How France Has Continued Exploiting Its Former African Colonies

The French army’s forced exit from Niger has been wistfully termed the end of an era of great-power status. We should remember what this really meant: a zombie empire that crushed democracy in order to protect French elites’ power, both in Africa and at home.

French troops withdraw from Niamey, Niger, on October 10, 2023. (Balima Boureima / Anadolu via Getty Images)

France, it seems, is leaving Africa. At least, that was the news last month when France began pulling its 1,400 soldiers out of Niger. Similar events across Africa’s so-called junta belt have garnered extensive attention recently. While commentators in publications like Foreign Policy and Time have trotted out tired Cold War–era binaries, others have focused on the legitimate grievances that have led citizens in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, and Niger to seek new governments. Mbaye Bashir Lo, professor at Duke University, captured this spirit well when he declared, “Nothing good comes from France.”

However, lost in many of these discussions is a more international, and specifically intercontinental, struggle. French politicians, business leaders, and generals have not only supported kleptocratic and antidemocratic governments in Africa. They have also done so in France itself.

To prove this point, one need only look at another set of headlines. French news readers have become accustomed to the name Vincent Bolloré. The ultraconservative billionaire, head of the Bolloré Group, is best known as a major backer of the French far right. Bolloré’s conservative media empire, which includes CNews, often described as France’s answer to Fox, has amplified reactionary politics for years. Last year, it provided a major platform to the protofascist presidential candidacy of Éric Zemmour. What commentaries often ignore, however, is the fact that Bolloré’s ability to finance this far-right media ecosystem stems in no small part from his vast holdings across West and Central Africa.

The same day French soldiers began leaving Niger, a court in the French city of Nanterre ordered the Bolloré Group to pay €145,000 to 145 residents who live near its vast Cameroonian palm oil plantations. The judge condemned the group for recklessly polluting rivers across Cameroon for years. Like other members of France’s business elite, Bolloré has reaped billions in profits from neocolonial and environmentally destructive industries across Africa.

Since the 1980s, Bolloré has turned his father’s once struggling paper company around by drastically lowering workers’ pay and diversifying its portfolio, most notably by purchasing transportation infrastructure across the African coast. While in the last few years Bolloré’s company has begun selling off many of its assets in Africa, the profits gained from them have long allowed him to buy up and radicalize media outlets across France. So when pundits speak about a fall of French power in Africa, we should ask who this power has served and whose dreams it has crushed.

“The Empire That Does Not Want to Die”

By the start of the twentieth century, France had violently conquered a huge empire in Africa. It laid claim to almost the entire northwestern quarter of the continent, vast swaths of Central Africa, and islands across the Indian Ocean. In order to control this vast empire, French colonial officials massacred civilians in North Africa, forced hundreds of thousands of West and Central African men into forced labor, and shot down liberation fighters in Madagascar. By the 1950s, however, France’s empire seemed to be fraying. By 1958, France had lost its colonies in Southeast Asia and was struggling to contain a powerful liberation movement in its prize colony, Algeria. In this context, the wartime leader General Charles de Gaulle stepped in to “save” the Republic.

While de Gaulle led the Free French forces in World War II, he had a distinct idea of what freedom meant. After France’s liberation, de Gaulle pushed for a new constitution that would give the executive massive power. Wary of creating another dictator, France’s political class and voters rejected the general’s vision. In response, de Gaulle stormed off the French political scene in 1946. Twelve years later, though, he returned.

Amid the escalating Algerian War, a military revolt known as the May 1958 Crisis brought de Gaulle back to power. Many leaders in France’s military had grown frustrated with France’s elected government, feeling that these politicians were not sufficiently defending French Algeria. To solve this problem, they decided to take power themselves and place the still extremely influential and popular de Gaulle at the nation’s helm, a reminder that military power-grabs are far from an African political pathology. To upend France’s parliamentary government, de Gaulle successfully pushed for a new Fifth Republic that centered power in the president rather than the National Assembly. Emblematic of this reform was Article 49.3, which allowed the president to force through legislation without a vote in the National Assembly. Today, facing massive popular resistance since the Yellow Vest movement, President Emmanuel Macron has made this article key to pushing draconian neoliberal reforms against overwhelming popular opposition. De Gaulle’s dream of an almost monarchical president survives.

De Gaulle and his allies integrated this authoritarian vision into France’s crumbling empire. By 1960, most of France’s sub-Saharan African colonies had gained independence. Yet this did not mean France had left the continent. De Gaulle, and his successors, supported more capitalist-friendly allies like presidents Léopold Senghor of Senegal and Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire. Meanwhile, France punished enemies like the socialist Sékou Touré of Guinea. Punishment often meant backing violent coups. During the 1960s, France backed military coups against elected leaders in Gabon, Mali, and the Republic of the Congo, to name a few. French flags had fallen, but the militaries that hoisted them remained.

The military was only part of this neocolonial relationship. By the 1960s, colonization had become “cooperation.” Politicians applied this deceptively supportive title to an array of economic, political, and cultural programs across France’s former African colonies that supported French influence. Schools, ports, and banks continued to serve French political and economic interests. This was most notable in the CFA franc, a colonial-era currency initially pegged to the French franc and now the euro, still used across France’s former colonies in Western and Central Africa. As the economist Ndongo Samba Sylla and journalist Fanny Pigeaud point out, countries using this currency have to place a significant portion of their foreign exchange reserves in a special French treasury account, allowing the French government to maintain significant influence over these countries’ treasuries. As protesters across Francophone Africa have called out recently, this currency is a potent tool and symbol of neocolonial French exploitation.

Yet this persistence did not come through French domination alone. From managers at French-owned gold mines in Senegal to generals in the Chadian army, African elites have worked alongside French counterparts to protect their shared interests. Antidemocratic authorities and business leaders in France and Francophone Africa alike have joined forces to defend what critics have decried as an “Empire that does not want to die.” This zombie empire even has its own name: Françafrique.

It did not take long for these governments to face challenges of their own. In 1968, millions of students and workers across France rose up against de Gaulle’s administration, comparing the general to the very fascist force he claimed to have defeated decades earlier. Many protesters also decried the rising exploitation of France’s postcolonial migrant workers. That same year, similar strikes arose in Senegal to oppose President Senghor’s autocratic state. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, similar uprisings erupted in the Republic of the Congo, Tunisia, Madagascar, and elsewhere. Across the remnants of France’s empire, students, workers, and radical militants decried elites that had destroyed the dreams of liberation and decolonization alike.

Living and Leaving Françafrique

Yet Françafrique survived. French multinationals took over uranium mines in Niger, plantations in Cameroon, and oil refineries in Gabon. Meanwhile, France’s military intervened in at last sixteen different African countries between 1960 and 1991 to defend allies and protect strategic interests. In recent years, it has become a rite of passage for new French presidents to declare the end of Françafrique. Yet as soon as these declarations are made, these same presidents use whatever means they can to defend French political and economic power across the region.

Many French citizens unknowingly rely on the rapacious neocolonial industries. Nigerien uranium mines have long fueled France’s massive nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, mineworkers and local communities live with the deadly consequences. Gas stations across France pump Gabonese oil into their cars, sending riches to French executives and, until a recent coup, the coffers of the country’s long-ruling Bongo family. Similar dynamics play out across France’s former colonies. Extractive industries destroy landscapes and livelihoods, pushing millions to find new ways to sustain themselves and their communities.

These same industries fuel France’s own reactionary politics. During a trip to Senegal in 2022, Marine Le Pen visited West Africa’s largest rice mill and a sugar company that is Senegal’s largest private employer, both French-owned, to celebrate what she called “authentic Euro-African co-development.” Figures like Le Pen use these multinationals and the “co-development” they promise to demonstrate French global influence. In doing so, they invoke a neocolonial obsession with defending France’s “grandeur,” all while prioritizing industrial profits over French citizens’ everyday needs. As symbols and financiers, French multinationals in Africa thus fuel right-wing forces in France itself.

Meanwhile, these multinationals cause economic and environmental crises that push hundreds of thousands of people toward Europe’s shores. In response, the French government has joined its European partners to shut the continent’s borders. All the while right-wing pundits at stations like CNews, funded by the very neocolonial industries behind many of these migratory crises, pit French citizens against migrant workers. Neocolonialism thus fuels feeds a vicious cycle of social, political, and economic erosion on both sides of the Mediterranean.

People have not taken this sitting down. In France and across Francophone Africa, activists have risen up against unresponsive governments and the destructive multinationals they support. In 2018, protesters in Senegal’s capital of Dakar smashed windows of grocery stores owned by the powerful French multinational Auchan. Protesters deplored France’s ongoing economic power, particularly in the realm of food production and distribution. A few years later in central France, French activists launched a similarly militant protest against France’s agricultural industries. Hundreds of environmentalists clashed with police to stop a huge water reserve that would send water in an increasingly drought-stricken region to rapacious agricultural industries. While fighting against different problems in different places, these protesters shared a desire to challenge environmentally destructive French companies that have exploited millions in Africa and Europe alike.

Some movements highlight these struggles’ connections. Rural French activists with the group Sustainable Agriculture and Migrant Seasonal Workers have worked alongside labor migrant groups for years to improve their working conditions. As the farmer Nicolas Duntze put it, they are trying to make sure France’s “rural fields don’t become experiments in social erosion.”

These converging protests are part of France and Africa’s entangled history. For all that divides the people of France and its former African colonies, they share the right to an economy and government that does not turn public goods into private interests. Yet for decades, destructive industries and the politicians who defend them have stood in the way of this dream.

It is unclear if new military governments have the means, or will, to change this dynamic in the Sahel. The economic, political, and environmental crises they face are immense. But as protesters have made clear, many people want to face them without France’s soldiers or businesses.

As French troops leave Niger and neocolonial multinationals help fund France’s right-wing drift, a new era may emerge. We should not think of this period as one that pits the French against Africans but as one that pits citizens against billionaires. This change represents an opportunity to challenge a decades-old system that defends autocrats and industrialists across continental borders. True democracy demands embracing international solidarity and fighting for the egalitarian world people imagined the first time France’s African empire seemed to crumble.