In his inaugural speech as President of France in 2017, Emmanuel Macron said that he wanted to “convince our compatriots that France’s power is not declining, but that we are on the threshold of an extraordinary renaissance”. Since then, the decline of French imperialism has accelerated, both economically, geopolitically and militarily. This is particularly the case in Africa.
For a long period following the ‘wave of independence’ in 1960, Paris had maintained significant economic influence in its former colonies. Today, this is a distant memory for the French imperialists. In June 2021, for instance, the French ambassador to Cameroon, Christophe Guilhou, stated that “the market share of French companies in Cameroon has dropped from 40 percent in the 1990s to 10 percent today”. The reason: competition from China, which “since the 2000s… has been dominating practically all the infrastructure contracts in Cameroon.”
This phenomenon is not restricted to Cameroon. In a 2018 study, Coface (a subsidiary of the bank Natixis) pointed out that France saw its market share in Africa fall from 11 percent to 5.5 percent between 2000 and 2017. Last December, a heavyweight of so-called Françafrique threw in the towel: the Bolloré group – a French transport company dealing mainly with freight – had to sell its entire logistics and transport subsidiary on the African continent.
French capitalism is unable to withstand the competition from its imperialist rivals. Since the 2008 crisis, the struggle between great powers has intensified on the African continent, as elsewhere. Chinese companies – among others – have entered markets that were once dominated by French imperialism.
This economic decline of France in Africa has its geopolitical counterpart. In recent years, the French army has had to disengage from several African countries.
From Barkhane to Wagner
In 2013, the French intervention in the Sahel – Operation Barkhane – aimed to strengthen France's military and political presence in the region. It was a resounding failure. The French army failed to defeat the Islamist insurgents, and in fact they spread to new countries. The French troops only succeeded in making themselves hated in the eyes of the population, and in discrediting themselves in front of a good part of the local military, who had grown sick and tired with the colonial behaviour of their French ‘partners’. As a result, the local bourgeoisie is increasingly turning to Russia and China.
At the end of 2020, the government of President Touadera in the Central African Republic asked Russia for help in fighting a French-backed rebellion. Moscow immediately sent in mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who repelled the rebellion and recaptured more than half the country’s territory. In the wake of this, Touadera demanded – and obtained – the permanent departure of French troops.
In 2021 and 2022, a series of coups led by ‘pro-Russian’ soldiers overthrew pro-French regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso. The new Malian government asked the French soldiers to leave and the Russians to replace them. A few months later, the new government of Burkina Faso demanded the departure of French troops. Thus, in less than eighteen months, the French army has had to evacuate three countries that were previously crucial parts of its presence in Africa.
War by proxy
During his last meeting with Vladimir Putin on 7 February 2022, Emmanuel Macron talked a lot about the situation in Africa. He probably hoped to negotiate a compromise and end the costly proxy war between Paris and Moscow. The war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia have dashed Macron’s hopes in this area.
Since then, the situation has continued to deteriorate. In December, Dimitri Sytyi, one of Wagner’s executives in the Central African Republic, was wounded by a package bomb. At the beginning of March, a factory in Bangui belonging to the French company Castel was set on fire, most likely by Wagner’s men. On 19 March, a Chinese company was attacked, probably by more or less pro-French rebels. Nine Chinese workers were killed.
This proxy war between France and its imperialist rivals will continue to accompany the decline of French imperialism. The first victims will be the workers of Africa. But this struggle will also have an impact on the workers of France, as the bourgeoisie seek to make up for lost profits abroad by intensifying exploitation at home. To put an end to this chaos, there must be a common struggle of the workers of France and Africa against imperialism and capitalism.