French Economic Neocolonialism in West and Central Africa

France was perhaps the most reluctant of the major colonial powers to relinquish its colonies. So strong was the desire to hold Algeria, for instance, that perceived government mishandling and incompetence regarding the Algerian War for independence led directly to the end of the Fourth Republic in a coup d’etat. With the end of that conflict, France would have superficially appeared to many observers to have forsaken the concept of an empire. However, in reality, France’s dreams of empire status did not end in the 20th century; they simply shifted forms. France continues to exploit its former colonies to this day, the major difference being that instead of exploitation through direct rule, it is largely through economic and political means. 

To understand France’s modern exploitation of its former subjects, it is first important to understand the ways in which French influence survives today. The most obvious form of economic control—which the French state exerts across much of West and Central Africa—is best seen through two currencies: the West African Franc and the Central African Franc, collectively known as the CFA franc (Franc of the Financial Community of Africa). They are linked today to the Euro, but formerly were linked to the Franc. Up until 2019, France held what was essentially a veto on all monetary policy decisions within the CFA franc zone. Despite these former colonies now being independent nations which should have their own degree of sovereignty, it was only one year ago that 50 percent of all CFA franc reserves were required to be deposited into the French central bank, and while the nations in question are now allowed to hold their own reserves, France must still be the guarantor if nations opt to do so. While an egregious display of relative power on its own, France also has a history of devaluing the CFA franc against the French franc so as to artificially augment French purchasing power against their former colonies. As long as the CFA franc stays, the French government can purchase natural resources for shockingly low prices that are unavailable anywhere else on the world market, and it is for that reason that the maintaining of the CFA franc is their imperative.

Yet, it is not just the currency but the industry, market, and the nature of politics themselves which are French-dominated. Of course, French investment into Africa disproportionately benefits the upper class, as one would expect, and so it is in the interests of upper-class African groups to allow a degree of French influence for their own benefit. Political allowance of French investment creates a reliance upon the French, and thus we enter into a positive feedback loop wherein the only benefactors are the French and the upper-class citizens of a nation. This is especially true due to the fact that the CFA franc is pegged (directly corresponding to) the value of the Euro. This is beneficial for European companies, including those of the French, as they can profit from the cheap labor of Africa and the economic stability of the Euro while not needing to invest any large sums of money into the host country. The money can simply be sent home to Europe due to the Euro arrangement, and the host country, which both provides the bulk of the labor and receives the detriments of investment, does not see a fair sum of recompense for its efforts and its losses. 

The French economically dominate their former colonies. This is particularly evident when it comes to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). In 2020, there was around 500 million U.S. dollars worth of French FDI in Côte D’Ivoire alone, a nation with a GDP of only around 70 billion dollars. France was the largest international investor. Côte D’Ivoire is a chosen example in a sea of many, and it naturally follows investment that the industries which result are ones which bring their profits directly back to France. This is, of course, ignoring the fact that even while factoring out investments in local industries, French industries in West Africa are already hugely influential. TotalEnergies, a French firm, is responsible for 17 percent of the entirety of Africa’s oil market share, is the leading distributor of oil products in Africa, and has 4,700 service stations across the continent. Due to their large presence, French companies also account for a large amount of tax income for West and Central African governments, making it even more difficult to dislodge the companies, a difficulty which will only grow with time. The obvious truth is that French power cannot be said to only linger in its former colonies. It is prevalent, constantly used, and has become so intertwined with the current status quo of many nations that it cannot be immediately excised without major disruptions to the existing social order. 

I would like to explicitly state that although the French prop up the economies of many of their former colonies, they also have essentially set a ceiling for the francophone world’s growth. French neocolonialism merely appears mutually beneficial. In reality, it is only the French and the various classes of African elites who profit. It is the workers of the exploited nations who bear the burden of the failures of their legislators, and it is the enforcement and furthering of wealth stratification that perpetuates this systematic oppression. 

As a conversation, this article is only scratching the surface of what French neocolonialism really is. A whole discourse into the matter could not be done in so few words, and a fuller one would speak of the more explicitly imperialistic acts of constant military intervention. France may not be the only power to exploit Africa for its resources, but it is one of the primary forces keeping African nations poor so as to enrich themselves. The success of West and Central African nations will rest on whether or not they are able to break free from the French yoke. If we are to see the francophone world ever prosper, it will and must not be under the boot of the French.