France, West Africa, New Colonialism and Competition

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On July 31, 2022, the Government of Mali called on the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, to abandon the “neo-colonial” attitudes. In this context, France is accused of pursuing “neo-colonial” policies, with its military presence in the country and the region, and its economic impact. In military terms, the bases that France established in the country on the grounds of combating Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, and in economic terms, the CFA franc, which was printed in the Bank of France and used in seven West African countries, including Mali, constitutes the essential foundations of criticisms based on colonialism.[1] Although these two facts are presented as tools for stabilization by France, they caused adverse reactions against the Paris administration. The case of Mali also sheds light about France in all West African colonies.

Mali, located in West Africa, has most of the Muslim population. At the end of the 19th century, the country, which was then a colony of France under the name “French Sudan,” gained its independence in 1960. In the country, which was ruled by a dictatorship until the elections in 1992, both the intense inter-tribal conflicts and the strong terrorist organizations continued the turmoil in the political life of Mali. The country sought help from France in 2013 for attempts to overthrow the government.[2] Both this situation and the fact that one of the official languages of Mali is French form the basis of the current colonial debates. Moreover, the issue is not limited to Mali because it can be said that these issues are also valid in other West African colonies of France.

The colonial activities of France in West Africa started in 1637 by the Atlantic Ocean of the Senegal River and spread inland over time. French colonialism ended shortly after France’s Fifth Republic Era began, extending to Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Niger. For over 300 years, France has exploited the region’s resources and people through various methods, including trafficking enslaved people in West Africa. In other words, the Paris administration developed the French economy through the colonies.

As observed in other colonial empires, France maintained its ties with its former colonies in the post-colonial period. As a matter of fact, the economic system of France was shaped within the framework of the exploiter-exploited relationship. The colonies are generally countries that export raw materials outside crucial production chains. This situation creates a system that works for the benefit of capitalist states like France because even after independence, these colonies were seen as a “market.”

Military coups took place in Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, and in addition to the security crisis in the country, a political crisis emerged. France first sent troops to Mali in 2013 to fight a jihadist insurgency. At the beginning of 2020, Paris announced that it would withdraw its military forces in this country. Mali Government Spokesperson Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, after the statements made by Macron during his three-day visit to Benin, Cameroon, and Guinea-Bissau on July 25-28, 2022, is the “The transitional government demands President Macron permanently abandon his neo-colonial, paternalistic and patronizing posture to understand that no one can love Mali better than Malians,” he said.[3]

Referring to the situation in Mali during the visit, Macron said that they have an essential responsibility, such as creating a framework for the Malian people to express their sovereignty and to continue the fight against terrorist groups. Macron also referred to the relations between the Government of Mali and the Russian private security firm Wagner.[4] However, Malian decision makers reject claims that the Wagner Group will be deployed in the country.[5]

Economically, France is considered a vital supplier of resources by Malian decision-makers. However, in recent years, China’s share in the country’s economy has exceeded that of France.[6] In this regard, the Paris administration is in a struggle for influence with Beijing and Moscow. In fact, behind France’s policies described as “neo-colonial” is the power struggle with these actors.

At this point, it is necessary to talk about the dynamics of competition in the region. First, it is helpful to state that China is West Africa’s largest investor and trading partner.[7] Because, within the scope of the Belt-Road Project, the ports of the countries with a coast to the ocean make the region attractive to China. Also, West African countries have an interest in China because, unlike the West, Beijing does not seek “democracy” in return for investment.

On the other hand, China also provided military aid to the region’s countries to ensure security within the piracy and terrorist activities framework. For example, Beijing offered $100 million in financial assistance to The African Standby Force (CADSF) in 2017. China wants to increase the region’s security to protect its investments there. Beijing is thus challenging Paris’ influence in West Africa, especially in economic terms.

It is seen that Russia is increasing its commercial relations with African countries every year. In addition, military training and arms sales come to the fore in the regional policies of the Moscow administration. For example, as France withdrew from the region, it was observed that the Wagner Group became more active in Mali. At this stage, it should be underlined that the Wagner Group serves the interests of Russia.[8]

As a result, France’s relations with West African countries are shaped by a neo-colonial perspective. This situation is closely related to the colonial past of the country. Paris acts with the logic of colonialism to achieve its interests. However, these policies are marketed with the instrumentalization of Western values such as “democracy” and “human rights.” On the other hand, West African countries have been dragged into a whirlpool of crises, with the effect of being exploited for centuries. This triggers anti-colonial sensitivities. Accordingly, the influence of China and Russia in the region is increasing. Therefore, it can be predicted that France’s influence will decrease in Mali and in West Africa in general due to its colonial past. Therefore, the increase in the influence of Russia and China will not be surprising.

[1] “France Tries New Tactics After Losing İnfluence in West Africa”, Anadolu Agency,, (Date of Accession: 02.08.2022).

[2] “Mali Country Profile”, BBC,, (Date of Accession: 02.08.2022).

[3] “Mali Junta Criticises Macron’s ‘Neocolonial and Patronising’ Attitude”, France 24,, (Date of Accession: 04.08.2022).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Mali”, OEC,, (Date of Accession: 02.08.2022).

[7] “China’s Involvement in West Africa”, Fire Watch Solutions,, (Date of Accession: 05.08.2022).

[8] “As Europe Withdraws from Mali, Russia Gets the upper Hand”, Anadolu Agency,, (Date of Accession: 05.08.2022).

Cemre Çağla ATAMER
2017 yılında Aydın Adnan Menderes Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun olan ve 2020 yılında aynı üniversitenin Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler yüksek lisans programından “Latin Amerika’da Entegrasyon Çabaları: AB ile Karşılaştırmalı Bir Analiz” teziyle uzmanlığını alan Cemre Çağla Atamer, 2021 yılında Ankara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Latin Amerika Çalışmaları Anabilim Dalı’nda ikinci yüksek lisans programına başlamıştır. Halihazırda yüksek lisans eğitimine devam eden Atamer, iyi derecede İngilizce ve başlangıç seviyesinde İspanyolca bilmektedir.