Despite a relatively hegemonic position of France in large parts of Africa, Russia has recently emerged as a competitor in the region. This is largely the result of relatively neutral perceptions of the Kremlin, the emergence of power vacuums in several conflicts, and the availability to expand arms export markets and acquire natural resources. However, such moves have eroded the traditional position of Paris in this part of the world and caused security concerns in the Élysée, straining relations with Russia. A comparative analysis of recent developments in Libya, the Central African Republic, and Mali suggests a potentially challenging future for France in the region due to the proliferation of innovative foreign policy strategies by rivals.
Between Past and Future
Africa has long been a vitally important domain of French foreign policy. The continent has arguably counted as the most important region for France, after Europe, since the invasion of Algeria in 1830 and the subsequent establishment of the second French colonial empire. France would continue to consolidate its control over vast swaths of the continent for more than a century, until a process of decolonization that occurred after the end of the Second World War.
Although painful processes of detachment occurred with most of North Africa, decolonization in sub-Saharan Africa was more gradual, and many ties with Paris remain. While French remains a lingua franca and de facto administrative language in the Maghreb, French stands as the official language of 21 sub-Saharan African nations, a fact that recent French administrations have been keen to take advantage of. The currencies of former French colonies in West and Central Africa are also integrated into French monetary policies, as the nations continue to use the CFA franc, a currency bound to the value of the euro, and are obliged to deposit half of their foreign exchange reserves with the French Treasury.
While France has agreed to end this policy with West Africa, it comes long after Paris has benefited from trade and economic benefits from this arrangement. In addition to lasting linguistic and economic ties, France has also been engaged in military operations in Africa for decades, most recently in the Sahel region as Operation Barkhane from 2014 to the present day.
Percentage of francophone population in African countries, 2014. Wikimedia
However, despite the relatively hegemonic position of France in Francophone Africa for the past several decades, the global geopolitical environment is becoming more complex. The pivot of the United States primarily towards Asia, the economic and political rise of China, the reemergence of Russia and Turkey as active global and regional players, and an explosive demographic (and potentially economic) boom in Africa have all contributed to a significantly more complex environment for the French position in Africa.
With regard to these new challenges, Russia has been particularly assertive in Africa over the past decade, often clashing with France in security, economic, and cultural spheres. Russia’s declaration of a Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019 showcases the Kremlin’s interest in expanding its footprint in a wide array of African states in the future, although the multifaceted nature of Franco-Russian relations on the African continent can so far be largely summarised by their encounters in three nations: Libya, the Central African Republic, and Mali.
Never a lasting part of the French colonial empire, Libya might have seemed an unlikely location for French military involvement. This is further amplified by the hopes and warm relations that marked the Élysée’s posture toward Libya and Muammar Gaddafi during the Sarkozy administration. In light of failed attempts by Sarkozy to establish a staunch ally in the Mediterranean, France would eventually call for a military operation to oust the Libyan government in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011. While supported by a “Coalition of the Willing”, France led every major operation in this conflict against Gaddafi. The collapse of Libya’s ruling government did not bring an end to hostilities, however, as Islamist political groups and militias eventually took the reigns of power. This spurred the rise of a Gaddafi-era military officer, named Khalifa Haftar, in leading the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army in 2014, with the intention of rooting out political islam in Libya.
Although standing in opposition to the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord since 2015, it is Haftar that has received the support of France. Paris has reportedly provided weaponry, training, intelligence, and special forces assistance to Haftar, moves that have proven critical in his securitization of Cyrenaica as a stronghold. Since 2021, however, France has become more of a vocal supporter for the Government of National Unity, a government that aims to unite the Tobruk and Tripoli based governments, although scepticism for France’s position of neutrality remains. Support for Haftar might be seen as a reflection of the dominant view in French political circles that strong-handed secular leaders are the only viable actors that can prevent militant Islamism and mass migration in the MENA region.
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The conflict in Libya is further complicated by the fact that, while it began in an era of relative Western hegemony, it has continued into an era of greater global multipolarity and assertiveness on the part of several key states. Russia stands among these nations and became involved in the Libyan conflict in 2015, a year after its actions in Ukraine and the same year it became militarily involved in the Syrian Civil War. Unlike many of the African nations in which France and Russia are involved, however, the Libyan case marks an interesting example of relatively parallel interests on the part of Paris and Moscow.
Like France, the Kremlin also agreed to support Haftar over the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, principally by the persuasion of Egypt to supply Haftar’s Libyan National Army with weapons. Since 2017, Russian ties to Haftar have been bolstered further, including through several personal meetings by the Prime Minister of the Haftar-supported Libyan House of Representatives with members of the Russian government. By 2020, Russia has reportedly supplied Haftar’s forces with aircraft, missiles, and armored vehicles, causing an uneasy stalemate with the now Turkish-supported Government of National Accord.
Situation in Libya as of June 2020. Ali Zifan/Wikimedia
It is also important to note the significant presence of Russian mercenary forces in Libya, most notably as part of the Wagner Group, which may have up to 1,200 contractors operating in the country. Such formations have complicated calls by the Government of National Unity, as well as France, for the removal of foreign troops in Libya due to the weak links between Wagner and any Russian governing institutions. Overall, Russian interest in Libya is likely guided mostly by the prospects of defence contracts, investments in natural resources, and potentially even desires for a permanent military presence on NATO’s southern flank.
As it currently stands, both Paris and Moscow vocally support the Government of National Unity, while both harbouring biases toward Haftar’s faction. Despite this, Moscow’s interests differ significantly from those of Paris, indicating a likelihood that the relationship between these powers in Libya will become more complex and competitive with time.
Central African Republic
Formerly part of French Equatorial Africa, the Central African Republic has known seven French military interventions since independence in 1960. The latest came in the form of Operation Sangaris, beginning in 2013 in light of calls from the President of the Central African Republic for support against Islamist militias, known as Séléka, which had reached the vicinity of the capital from the north. After the fall of the capital, rogue Christian militias, known as the Anti-balaka, rose to combat the new government by 2014. The worsening of hostilities and fears of genocide led to the increase in French involvement and begining of a French and African Union-led UN mission called the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA).
By 2015, French forces had secured the capital city and most of the western part of the Central African Republic had returned to government control. Apart from leaving behind a small rapid reaction force, France began to pull out most of its troops and cede operations to MISCA, and officially ended Operation Sangaris in 2016. However, despite largely withdrawing from the field, hostilities have not completely ended, and the absence of French leadership in the region has left a vacuum open for other powers.
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Bangui’s disappointment with the progress of UN peacekeepers in taking back control of its territory resulted, in March of 2018, in the Russian Foreign Ministry announcing that it would be providing free military aid to the Central African Republic as per request. More specifically, the Russian Defence Ministry would provide small arms and ammunition to the armed forces of the Central African Republic and send 5 military and 170 civilian instructors to train the country’s military servicemen. Many believe that this comes alongside a greater presence of Wagner Group forces in the country, as Wagner has reportedly taken over as the presidential guard, and is currently estimated to number around 2,300 personnel.
As part of these deals with Russian actors, President Touadéra also appointed a former Russian intelligence officer as his National Security Advisor, and for a time the Russian economic mission in the country also took control of customs revenue collection at the Central African Republic’s borders. Along with such benefits, there is also evidence indicating that Bangui is compensating Russia and the Wagner Group with control of strategic gold and diamond mining zones. Additionally, in November 2021, President Touadéra declared that Russian would henceforth be a mandatory language of study for all university students in the country.
Unlike relations in Libya, Russia and France find themselves at great odds over recent developments in the Central African Republic. Paris largely views Russian encroachment in the region as a direct challenge to a traditional French sphere of influence, which appears threatened by growing security, economic, and cultural ties to Moscow. Tensions are further reflected in recent ‘cyber warfare’ between trolls and influence operations through social media emanating from Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” based in St. Petersburg, as well as the French military, marking the first known instance of such a campaign being carried out by a Western government. Conflict between these trolls online eventually resulted in Facebook suspending approximately 500 accounts related to both countries’ operations in December of 2020.
Russian propaganda towards Africa is also noteworthy in its common use of local language instead of French, likely in an attempt to garner an association of respect towards local cultures in opposition to narratives of imperialism placed on France. In June of 2021, France also firmly suspended military cooperation of its remaining 300 troops, as well as budgetary aid to the Central African Republic, explicitly on the grounds that Bangui was "complicit" in a Russian-led anti-French campaign. While France remains integrated in UN and EU-led missions in the country, its position has dropped dramatically after Russian engagement in the region in 2018, with dialogue or compromise between Paris and Moscow in the region appearing unlikely.
Formerly part of French West Africa, Mali has traditionally acted as a close partner of France in the region. However, in early 2012, a Tuareg insurgency broke out with the intention of establishing an independent state known as Azawad in the north of the country. This situation was further complicated by the fallout of the Libyan Civil War, which facilitated the exploitation of the situation by Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda, who effectively took control of much of northern Mali by the end of the year. This led to a French military intervention in the country at the behest of the central government, beginning in 2013 as Operation Serval, which resulted in the recapture of all Islamist strongholds by mid-2014.
Serval was succeeded by Operation Barkhane, with a broader mission "to become the French pillar of counterterrorism in the Sahel region," and combat the Islamist presence in the Sahel over a longer period of time. With approximately 5,000 troops across the Sahel region, Operation Barkhane was complicated by coups d’état in Mali in both 2020 and 2021. French cooperation with Malian forces ceased for several weeks in 2021, and President Macron declared that the Barkhane mission would soon be over and replaced by a more international operation.
French troops taking part in Operation Barkhane. Reuters/Media Coulibaly
French intervention, while relatively popular in the north of Mali, has become quite unfavourable in the south of the country, with anti-French protests taking place frequently. This was part of the calculus, along with fears that local governments were negotiating with terrorist groups, that led to President Macron’s decision to cut down military engagement. However, this led to accusations from Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Maiga that France was abandoning the country, which appears to have spurred the Malian government to seek out alternative security providers, such as Russia and the Wagner Group. The Soviet Union and Russia have a history of warm relations with Mali, even counting as the country that Malian Prime Minister Maiga received his PhD from. Two of the five members of the junta that performed the 2020 coup d’état in Mali also received military training in Russia.
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Moreover, the Kremlin was instrumental in providing helicopters, ammunition, supplies, and training staff and other personnel to Mali in 2019. In September of 2021, as relations with France worsened, the Defence Minister of Mali travelled to Moscow, and it soon became clear that the country was negotiating a deal to potentially bring in 1,000 personnel from the Wagner Group. Reports also indicate that Wagner would be offered both traditional payment and control of specific mining operations as compensation for their work.
Based on the report of the Swedish Defence Research Agency
These moves have infuriated the Élysée, prompting French officials to state that the involvement of Wagner forces would render French cooperation with Malian security forces “incompatible.” The Takuba Task Force, the European wing of Operation Barkhane led by Sweden and including troops from the likes of Germany and the United Kingdom, also seems likely to pull out of the conflict if negotiations with the Wagner Group follow through. Like Franco-Russian relations in the Central African Republic, developments in Mali mark an increasingly difficult posture in the bilateral relations between Paris and Moscow.
Common and Emerging Challenges
While France and Russia are both engaged in many other global operations, the cases of Libya, the Central African Republic, and Mali are critical in understanding the evolving nature of their relationship. Recent developments in these nations also demonstrate certain key trends in the way that the Kremlin and Élysée approach global politics.
One important commonality in Russian approaches to intervention in all three of these conflict zones is the primacy of interest in weapons deals and arms exports. While the link between Russian geopolitical interest and its use of arms exports is not a new phenomenon, the acceleration of this trend to a greater variety of global conflict zones and the aggressive pursuit of new markets may indicate the general direction of Russian foreign policy in the years to come. Russia currently stands as the second largest arms exporter in the world, after the United States, and accounts for around 20% of global arms sales. France has a long history of attachment to its own arms industry as an expression of its strategic autonomy, but this goal is highly dependent on the sale of French arms abroad. The proliferation of Russian arms in regions like sub-Saharan Africa may therefore have critical repercussions to France’s own arms industry.
In all three of these cases, it is also evident that the Kremlin has taken action when the realities of a power vacuum become clearest. While France provided military support to the Central African Republic and Mali for some time, these states sought out Russian support after political will in Paris was exhausted. Haftar’s case also spells out a similar recipe, as Paris was not willing to overtly support Haftar through conventional military means, the conflict served as an ideal scenario for Moscow to make use of the Wagner Group. As the United States continues to pivot to Asia and leave issues in the Mediterranean and Africa to local powers, France may have to learn to compete with the hard power offered by nations like Russia and Turkey if it wishes to retain a position of influence.
The use of the Wagner Group and other private military companies can be described as the elephant in the room, as this aspect of Russian foreign and security policy arguably constitutes the most dramatic and innovative addition to its arsenal in the past decade. The importance of personal connections and informal networks within the Russian political system has rendered unique advantages that produced the availability of indirect military assets like the Wagner Group. The use of the Wagner Group also bestows certain leverages for the Russian state, such as in the case of Libya, where it can actively deny the relevance of French calls to pull foreign troops from the conflict zone. The efficient and elastic nature of Russia’s relationship with private military companies seems to point toward their proliferation of use by the Kremlin going forward, as well as the likely adoption of this strategy by other illiberal regimes. Symmetric competition by liberal democracies in this field is unlikely to prove feasible, and responses to these developments by Paris and other Western nations will likely require further innovation.
Finally, the use of online influence operations, especially through social media, constitutes another new development in Russian foreign policy in the past decade. The actual effectiveness of such methods remains up for debate, as Facebook analytics revealed that operations by both France and Russia towards the Central African Republic largely failed to reach their actual target audience. Additionally, while it is likely that Russian propaganda has played some role in the growth of anti-French sentiment in the region, this is a trend that is likely also due to other underlying factors related to the history, politico-economic relations, and military operations of France in Africa for the past 200 years. Nonetheless, the trend towards greater hostility towards French presence in the region remains one of the most serious issues for the Élysée going forward, as regions like the Sahel continue to pose immense security risks for the French state, and stability in Francophone Africa is a prime deterrent to seismic migration crises.
Relations between Paris and Moscow have been marked and molded by hundreds of years of history. While France has retained a privileged position on the African continent since the Cold War, the re-emergence of Russian presence in the region threatens to add further complexity to the shape of bilateral ties between the two countries. Interaction in Libya has demonstrated an uneasy common position in support for Haftar, although diverging interests at a deeper level will likely render this a short-lived state of affairs. Russia is primarily concerned with the expansion of its arms export market, as well as the acquisition of natural resources across Africa. This is demonstrated not only in Libya, but also in the Central Africa Republic and Mali.
While the erosion of French primacy in security, economic, and cultural spheres in these latter states threatens the Élysée’s conception of traditional spheres of influence, it also poses a potential challenge for its domestic arms industry, security against terrorism from the Sahel region, and prevention of mass migration. While Russia has only recently re-emerged as a competitor in Africa, the largely inexpensive nature of its operations there, as well as the relative lack of US presence, will likely encourage the Kremlin to pursue greater activities in the region.
The use of private military companies, especially the Wagner Group and those like it, as well as influence operations through social media, is also likely to increase. The maintenance of the French position in Africa will, therefore likely, prove to be a challenge, as Paris will be forced to develop competitive innovations to combat Russian strategies, as well as their potential adoption by other emerging rivals with similar aims.
Written by Sven Etienne Peterson, a research assistant at ADASTRA Think Tank
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