The twilight of Françafrique: post-electoral conflict in the Central African Republic

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Krystal Gaillard
Krystal Gaillard

Programme Assistant at Friends of Europe

France has the third largest foreign mission in the world and a lot of it is concentrated in Africa through a variety of operations and logistical support initiatives. Although its engagement with Operation Barkhane has captured a lot of attention lately, France’s influence is not limited to the semi-arid plains of the Sahel. The recent post-electoral conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR) highlight the need for a new French strategy in the region, where porous borders and guerrilla activity have historically led to conflict spillover and traditionally justified foreign intervention.

Bordering the strategic French allies of Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo (RC), CAR has been struggling with turmoil for nearly two decades. The election of Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in 2016 was a short-lived transition to peace; his re-election last year took place against a backdrop of civil and armed opposition. Launching an offensive on CAR’s capital city of Bangui shortly before the election, rebel groups disrupted the electoral process and voter turnout culminated at 35%. Touadéra was elected in the first round, declared a state of emergency and countered attempts made to overthrow his government.

Amid violent election contestation, Paris had been waging an unsuccessful war of influence to keep its fleeting grip on the region. Vying for influence in the resource-rich and geographically strategic country, France was caught red-handed as Facebook identified a series of ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’ in CAR and Mali with links to the French Army. Facebook’s report – the first to pin down a Western power – dealt a blow to French covert operations and exposed its attempts to retain popular support and influence in Africa through electoral manipulation.

This long-standing engagement is arguably nearing its end

To add insult to injury, Touadéra has now shunned his francophone neighbours. He has grown wary of his Chadian counterpart, President Idriss Déby, and complained about RC President Denis Sassou Nguesso and DRC President Félix Tshisekedi’s proximity to his political opponents and guerrilla leaders. Touadéra has now turned to his lusophone partners instead, dealing yet another setback to France’s network of influence in Central Africa.

Once an 11,000 soldier-strong key strategic operation, France’s military involvement in CAR has been downgraded to a few hundred. This long-standing engagement is arguably nearing its end, as France shifts towards limited support capacity in its international efforts. This move is further reinforced by criticisms that France fell short of disarming militias and has instead plunged CAR into a cycle of politicising insecurity, where guerrilla leaders tokenise peace for guaranteed political positions.

Criticism extends to arguing that military and logistical support to CAR was and is just another facet of Françafrique, the outdated French approach to strategic alliances with its past colonies. France’s traditional role in Africa can be summarily characterised by French General de Villiers’ notable quote: “It is not enough to win the war, one must win the peace.” Françafrique embodied this vision, as military operations were accompanied by a strategy of influence or counter-influence and motivated by economic gain, a profound sense of duty and a deep attachment to the concept of French rayonnement (read: France occupying the spotlight and leading the world into progress).

The Françafrique approach can no longer function nor be justified

Past French support in CAR proved precious to secure an essential supply route and other efforts critically contributed to the temporary transition to peace around Touadéra’s 2016 election. However, endogenous contestation is brewing across Africa in the face of foreign intervention from former colonial powers, and influence strategies are no longer enough to warrant support for military operations. French military involvement in particular is increasingly challenged throughout the continent and this trend could be spreading to CAR, which seems to be emancipating from France and its African allies. While this may be worrying for the propagation of Western values, given the strategic positioning of Russia and others, it is a sentiment that must be taken into account in the formulation of French foreign policy. The above, plus consideration of CAR’s newfound romance with Angola and a contemporary understanding of neo-colonialism, signals that the twilight of Paris’ traditional involvement in Africa has begun.

A shift in diplomatic strategy will be more effective in securing popular support and enthusiastic partnerships than inauthentic campaigns on social media. The Françafrique approach can no longer function nor be justified, despite its original noble intentions. While carefully advising against a complete disengagement from the region, as this would leave a power vacuum in an already fragile equilibrium, France should consider taking heed from the lacklustre of Operation Barkhane.

Supporting regional attempts to solve problems and offering logistical support to local conflict resolution initiatives would cement France’s influence in the region and support peace processes in a sustainable manner. A revised approach would also distinguish France as a clear choice for local initiatives seeking stability and potentially allow France to achieve part of its rayonnement in the context of a lasting democratic renewal in Africa.

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