Is France a progressive force, solving the problems of instability and violence in Africa? Dan Poulton exposes the myth that France is a humanitarian state

Francois Hollande and Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore arrive at the airport of Timbuktu. Photo: Reuters/Fred DufourFrench President Francois Hollande chose his words carefully. “France took this responsibility because it was present in Africa,” he said, soon after launching a war against Mali. “It is not there to pursue its own interests or affluence – it is there to help. So we will ensure that this intervention is useful.”

Should we take his words at face value? Is France really just an accidental hero, well-placed to solve the problems of instability and violence in Africa? Is France a humanitarian state?

Let us look at the evidence. On the one hand we have the ‘humanitarian intervention’ rhetoric that has been used to justify wars in Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. On the other hand we have the historical record. What does it tell us about France and its supposed love of freedom, democracy and human rights?


In 2010, half a century on from a number of African countries becoming independent from French rule, Senagalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop wrote an article for the Foreign Policy journal called Why is France still propping up Africa’s dictators?, in which he described France’s post-independence strategy in Africa:

‘At the very moment it realized decolonization was historically inevitable, Paris concocted a true masterpiece of political genius: undertaking all that was necessary in pulling out of Africa – and doing so in such a way as to, in fact, not budge an inch.’

France’s methodology was simple, Diop wrote:

‘…install trusted African politicians, some with French nationality, as the heads of these 14 new states and maintain the firm, French grasp on their natural resources. It was a system that naturally bred corruption and instability – and could hardly persist without massive abuses of human rights.’

During the original scramble for Africa in the late 19th Century, the French justified their imperialist adventures with recourse to the racist notion of ‘Mission Civilisatrice’, a ‘civilising mission’ to advance a ‘backwards’ people. The British had a similar phrase, provided by the poet Kipling: ‘the white man’s burden’.

No doubt the pompous and elitist ruling classes – and their middle class echo-chambers – did indeed believe this nonsense. This was to their benefit because it lent a humanitarian veneer to their naked greed and ambition.

Francois Hollande’s rhetoric of ‘responsibility’ is not a million miles away from the sweeping, not to mention unwarranted, arrogance of Mission Civilisatrice.


The three decades from 1960 to 1989 saw the rise of ‘Francafrique’, a shadowy neo-colonial network connecting France with its former colonies.

For South African academic and journalist Khadija Sharife, in an article called Propping Up Africa’s Dictators, written for Foreign Policy In Focus in 2009, Franacfrique was ‘designed to create structural dependence and domination by reasserting geostrategic control over natural resources through the use of black “governors.” Not only this, but the system remains in place today, although perhaps in modified form:

‘The pulse of the Françafrique ideology—fric is slang for cash — is rooted in shadow economies sustaining respectable corporations, various intersecting shadow networks, secret services, private lobbies, and political and diplomatic relationships between the official and unofficial political elite. These forces are individually and collectively able to mobilize substantial economic, political, and military support.’

Sharife explained how France ‘meticulously devised its decolonization policy to tie the vested interests of handpicked native governors with French national interest.’

This entailed secretive ‘Military Cooperation Agreements’, signed with 27 African countries after 1960, including Mali. The agreements legally established French military bases in the country’s former colonies. This gave France the power to mount direct militarily interventions ‘which dictators feared could be used for them as much as against them.’

Clauses in the agreements gave France ‘priority access’ to natural resources, not least amongst them uranium. Furthermore, ‘African governments were forbidden from engaging in military, trade, and other forms of cooperation with nations regarded as a threat to their former colonial overlord.’

The economic benefits for France were clear, thanks to the malign mechanics of imperialism:

‘As 80% of Africa’s exports are primary commodities exploited by multinationals, Africa’s political economy — largely shaped by lopsided contracts — renders states accountable only to corporations. Each year, more than $148 billion leaves Africa in capital flight, routed through offshore financial centres before ending up in secrecy jurisdictions such as Switzerland.’

The BBC’s Hugh Scofield (no anti-imperialist) summed Francafrique up fairly concisely when recently wrote:

‘At its worst, it was a rotten system that served established interests – in France as well as in African states – with, at its heart, a devil’s bargain: you stay tame and send us your minerals, and when we need it, under-the-counter cash. In return, from time-to-time, we will send in French troops to save your presidential mightiness from the mob.’

What about democracy and human rights?

In the early 1990s President Chirac famously said that, ‘Africa is not ready for democracy,’ and described multi-party political systems as a ‘luxury’ in the region. Nonetheless France mounted 46 military interventions into Africa between 1960 and 2005. If democracy was a ‘luxury’ up until the early 1990s, then it can’t be the case that France intervenes to defend democracy.

If not democracy, then perhaps human rights motivate French interventions in Africa? But again, it is not a good record.

In 1960 Cameroon’s left-wing opposition leader Felix Moumie was poisoned by the French secret service. Moumie demanded a total break with France and wanted to implement socialism. For France such genuine independence was unacceptable.

In the early 1970s French forces helped suppress trade union and student resistance to the post-independence government of Niger, led by Hamani Diori (who maintained friendly links with France). But when he opposed French uranium extraction from the country in 1974 the French backed the coup that brought the government down. Uranium extraction favoured only the French and devastated the country’s crucial agricultural sector.

A country which produces so much wealth for the French cannot provide jobs for its own population. An influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced from Libya and Cote d’Ivoire (two other countries ruined in no small part by the French) puts a further strain on a disfigured economy. Debt-burdening IMF loans (ironically orchestrated by France’s Christine Lagarde) have only added to the devastation.

In 1990 French troops supported the regime of Gabonese dictator Omar Bongo after riots broke out against his rule. When Bongo died in 2009, bringing his 41 year reign to an end, it was revealed that his assets included 45 houses in France, a $1.5m sports car and millions of dollars of embezzled funds- funds he had used to help bankroll a certain Nicolas Sarkozy’s election campaign. Unsurprisingly Sarkozy was an enthusiastic supporter of the succession of Omar’s son, Ali Bongo, (another dictator).

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, French forces also defended the regime of notorious despot Mobutu Sese Seko from anti-government riots in the capital, Kinshasa, which broke out in 1991. And this is in no way a complete list of French imperialist crimes.

Hollande of liberty?

But surely with left leaning Francoise Hollande things are different? Alastair Stephens, in his comprehensive overview of Algeria’s tortured history, had this to say about the contradiction between the liberal values of the French Republic and its treatment of former colonies:

‘Conquered by the French in the 1830s, and settled by colonialists, Algeria was considered to be an integral part of France, yet a part of France like no other. Whilst the French settlers who made up 10% of the population lived a lifestyle almost indistinguishable from that in France, the Arab 90% were miserably exploited, lived in dire poverty, and were completely excluded from the rights and freedoms of Republican France.’

This Jekyll and Hyde relationship between the domestic life of imperialist countries and their colonial possessions is in no way unique to France. Compared to European capitalist standards at the time King Leopold II of Belgium ran his country like a (relatively) progressive bourgeois democracy. But in the Belgian Congo Leopold’s forces raped, maimed and pillaged their way through vast swathes of Central African rainforest, killing up to 10 million people and making an elite few very rich.

As political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita put it:

‘Unlike in Belgium, there was no chef de cabinet (roughly prime minister), and no voters among the Congo’s approximately 30 million people to limit what he could do. Because it was his personal property, Leopold was free to exert the absolute rule he could not have at home.’

The simple truth is that France’s economy, and its world standing, is based in no small way on its imperialist relationship to its former African colonies.

Imperialism and islamophobia

The rise of Islamophobia as a direct product of the War on Terror has given rise to widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in France. This only serves to oil the wheels of France’s war machine.

That elements of the French left are reflecting this sentiment and backing the war in Mali as a war against ‘fascism’ is not only a failure to learn from the past but a dangerous strand of left thought that must be challenged by any serious anti-imperialists in the country and abroad. To continue down this path without serious resistance within the imperialist countries is to further entrench imperialist war, a war which even David Cameron admits could go on for decades.

The old scramble for Africa relied on racist ideas about the supposed duty of the Western powers to intervene in their colonies, in order maintain the consent of the populations of the imperialist countries for the wars of their rulers. The rehabilitation of the ‘humanitarian intervention’ argument is an ongoing attempt to re-assert this project.

We must learn from history. So the next time anyone tells you that the French ruling class are proponents of humanitarian intervention, tell them it’s a dangerous myth.

This weekend’s Ten Years On conference celebrating the 2003 global march against war is an essential meeting point for all who wish end imperial intervention.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.