The Sahel has become a nest of instability where terrorism, drug trafficking, smuggling, corruption and many other illnesses have taken root. Consequently, European actors are heavily investing in the region, with France in the lead. Yet, these threats on their own do not explain France’s eagerness to invest in the Sahel. For France, it is also a way to strengthen its (military) position in the region, which can be 'understood by looking back at France’s colonial era ‘Eurafrique’ project.
Following World War II, a weakened France needed a way to maintain its position as a world power. Remembering the role played by its then colonies during the war, General De Gaulle and his strategists concluded that France’s African territories could play a key role in its international ambitions. In the view of these men, France’s industrialization depended on an Eurafrican perspective, closely intertwined to the geo-strategic and military field. Africa’s, and particularly West Africa’s, vast natural mineral resources would allow France to maintain its rank as a major world political and economic player, while also forming a response to the anti-colonialist positions of the United States and the former USSR and their growing influence in the world.
However, at the time, France did not have the financial means to carry out its Eurafrique ambitions by itself. It needed to bring on board its European allies and counterparts. Archives show how France cunningly lobbied its European allies to contribute to its sovereignty and control over its former colonies, arguing that Eurafrique would be the only way of putting Europe back on the world stage1 – a strategy that persists until today.
Geo-strategic competition in the Sahel and Africa
If the United States has previously been a minor player in the Sahel-Sahara region, in recent years Washington has had a growing presence in Africa through military bases and intelligence services in, for instance, Francophone Niger, Chad, Gabon and Senegal. As a clear sign of its shifting strategy, Washington now has a 4,000-strong military base in Djibouti – historically a French strategic military haven. Furthermore, since its inception in 2008, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has operated in almost every African country, making the American presence on the continent increasingly visible – a visibility perceived in Paris as a growing threat to its interests and ambitions. Worryingly for France, the Chinese presence across the continent is also growing. Beijing opened its first African military base in Djibouti in 2017, which indicates that a fierce strategic military battle is still to come over this tiny country.
It is, therefore, through the Eurafrique concept that the growing militarization of the Sahel region ought to be analyzed. Just like in the 1940s, France today is unable to pursue its Sahelian geo-strategic policy on its own. The French military presence in the Sahel is extremely costly and France knows it cannot afford it indefinitely. Therefore, in order to internationally legitimize its presence in the Sahel, France has, alongside its Barkhane Operation, successfully enrolled its European partners and allies in its plan (through different bodies and operations such as EUCAP Sahel Mali and Sahel Niger, the Sahel Alliance, and the European Union Training Mission in Mali), convincing other European states of the dangers of migration, terrorism and the real need for development. In so doing, France’s voice and interests remain heard and relayed through official European institutions.
The concept of Eurafrique also sheds light on the growing presence of Germany in the Sahel and West Africa. A key European partner and ally, Berlin seemingly maintains a single ‘European’ voice in the Sahel, increasingly getting involved there, especially by economically and socially financing NGOs. In other words, there seems to be a ‘good cop, bad cop’ sharing of tasks between Paris and Berlin, but serving different interests. Similarly, through this concept, the G5 Sahel can be understood as a military project ultimately benefiting France and its economic and strategic interests in the Sahel.
Old recipe, new players
French authorities are fully aware that France does not have the means to remain a key player in this globalized world. Since the 1960s, France’s empire has collapsed. Indeed, as the French professor of international relations Bertrand Badie argues, today France resembles more an emerging economy similar to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) than a world power. Consequently, Paris knows that the Sahel is the sole remaining card it can play to keep its head above water on the international political scene.
However, if the Sahel has for decades been a French chasse gardée (or private hunting) ground, this region has now undeniably become the battlefield for different regional and international actors with divergent interests. Notwithstanding France’s seemingly close cooperation with its European and American partners and allies, their engagements in the Sahel do not escape what the Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once reminded us: “international politics is [also] about national interests!”
As the focus on Africa will continue to grow in EU politics, France will continue to strengthen its military and political position in the Sahel. This is already visible in the closer and more frequent military operations taking place with Niger and Burkina Faso, as well as Mali. In so doing, Paris is sending a strong signal to its European partners and allies: European (and, therefore, French) socio-economic interests in the Sahel require a certain measure of stability and can only be guaranteed by France’s ongoing political and military engagement in the region.
1 L’union française et l’Europe, Paris, Institut des hautes études de la Défense nationale, 24 December 1954
Photo credit main picture: Mali - barkhane french operation - war on terrorism (Fred Marie via Flickr)