Europe isn't the only continent watching closely to see how France's presidential election plays out. On April 23, 11 candidates will battle it out for the country's highest office, though according to most polls four contenders have a clear lead over the rest: centrist Emmanuel Macron, center-right Francois Fillon, far-right Marine Le Pen and far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon. Who emerges from the first round of the presidential race could have sweeping consequences for the European Union, to be sure. But Francophone Africa, still tightly linked to its former metropole, will also be following the vote carefully for signs of what the next leader in Paris will bring to the table.
A Bond That Never Broke
Africa is a difficult topic to avoid on the French campaign trail. After all, the continent's history is deeply intertwined with France's: Nearly two dozen countries across Northern and sub-Saharan Africa were once French colonies. Paris' unrivaled dominance in the region held until the late 1950s, when the colonial order that had defined the globe for centuries began to crumble in the face of the independence movements springing up across the world.
French leaders of the day, most notably Charles de Gaulle, believed that in order to protect their country's independence and "grandeur" on the international stage, they needed to preserve Paris' privileged relationship with the new states being carved from its former empire. Throughout the Cold War, France's grand strategy relied on the cooperation — and compliance — of these African countries in matters of politics, energy and trade. In exchange for a near monopoly over access to Francophone Africa's natural resources and markets, France extended security guarantees, technical expertise, aid and investment to its one-time colonies in a system that later became known as "Francafrique."
This cozy arrangement lasted through the Cold War, until it collapsed alongside the Soviet Union. A combination of global geopolitical forces and domestic political pressures forced France to rethink its relationship with its African client states. French investment in the economies and governing structures of the region began to diminish as uncertainty in Paris regarding its approach toward Africa grew. Today, France continues to be torn between its desire to play a proactive role on the continent and its need to focus attention and resources elsewhere. As a result, its Africa policy is often driven by reactivity to crises that quickly outstrip the capabilities of its African allies. (The French interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic in 2013 are cases in point.)
Yet even as the Francafrique system has largely faded away, Africa remains central to France's strategy abroad. From Paris' standpoint, the Mediterranean Sea offers only a thin barrier between France and the North African states mired in conflict to the south. Civil war, fragile governments, terrorism, immigration and economic stagnation in the region have knock-on effects that could easily reach into Southern Europe. France, moreover, still maintains many interests throughout its former colonies. Its investments in Niger's uranium sector, for example, have been fueled by France's extensive use of nuclear energy, which meets about three-quarters of its electricity needs. Over 13 percent of French nationals live in Northern and sub-Saharan Africa as well, totaling more than 210,000 people concentrated in sizable clusters throughout the region. Because many of Paris' former colonies have designated French their official language and are a major source of immigration to France, they continue to be culturally bound to their one-time ruler. And Paris is determined to protect the many French assets and citizens that these states house.
Timing Is Everything
Still, France has reached a crossroads in its policy toward Africa. The country's next president could thus play an outsized role in determining what direction that policy takes, much as President Francois Hollande has during his sole term in office. And based on the platforms of the four frontrunners, France could be heading down any one of several very different paths.
The Fringe Figures
According to the polls, the National Front's Le Pen stands a good chance of reaching the second round of the presidential election. Beyond reiterating her goals of holding a referendum on France's EU membership, resuming the use of the franc and enacting stricter immigration laws, Le Pen made the unusual decision to weigh in on France-Africa issues during a recent trip to Chad in March. Excluded from power since its founding in 1972, the National Front has never crafted an Africa policy or built out networks of individuals influential in Francophone Africa, apart from a few visible figures such as entrepreneur Samuel Marechal. Should the party take power in this year's elections, it would need to co-opt the influence networks of the center-right Republicans, create some of its own or abstain entirely from such action on the continent.
Beyond security and terrorism, Le Pen's comments in Chad centered on the Franc CFA — the common currency of 14 African countries, 12 of which are former French colonies, and the financial descendant of the colonial-era money used in France's African empire. Today, the currency is pegged to the euro and backed by the French treasury, something its advocates say provides stability and its detractors say smacks of neocolonialism. Le Pen, a vocal critic of the euro, argued that it is time to abolish the European currency and let the African nations choose their own. If her proposal is carried out, it would leave those countries with free-floating currencies, almost certainly leading to financial volatility in the short term.
Le Pen's statement may have earned her points with some African opponents of the Franc CFA, but her party's persistent anti-immigrant rhetoric hasn't been as well received on the continent. In February, for example, Le Pen announced that after winning the election she would seek to end the dual nationality of non-Europeans living in France. The pledge immediately raised eyebrows, but if she does in fact secure a victory in May, making good on her promise wouldn't be easy. For one, there's no guarantee that the National Front would win a large share of seats in the National Assembly in June's legislative elections. Le Pen is still a popular figure in some circles, but her party boasts far less support. Therefore, there is a very real possibility that Le Pen would have to share power with an opposition party, reducing the chances that her more ambitious policies will be implemented.
Constraints to her agenda exist in Africa as well. Though Francophone Africa would be pressed to cooperate with a French immigration crackdown in order to preserve the protections Paris has provided, the relationship would not be a one-way street. Le Pen would need to appease African leaders to ensure that her immigration measures are enforced; after all, many of the migrants the National Front has denounced hail from Francophone Africa. Le Pen may push for tougher immigration laws at home while offering added incentives to African states to more tightly control their borders. (Germany has made similar attempts since 2016.) France's economy has lain stagnant for years, though, which would make such a massive and costly plan tough to execute.
France has reached a crossroads in its policy toward Africa.
Le Pen isn't the only presidential candidate to have offered extreme proposals. Melenchon, who represents the far-left Unsubmissive France party, which is allied with the Communist Party, has likewise grabbed headlines with his campaign promises. He turned heads in recent weeks with his calls to pull France out of NATO, increase government spending to the tune of $290 billion and slap a 100 percent tax on incomes over 400,000 euros ($420,000). And like Le Pen, Melenchon has taken a stab at crafting an Africa policy for his party.
Melenchon has argued that France should concentrate on addressing the root causes of illegal immigration from Africa. To that end, he has advocated abandoning the Franc CFA, harmful commercial deals and wars that "destabilize" the continent. He has also suggested implementing a plan to prevent the further desertification of the Sahel. Most notably, Melenchon has said that French military interventions should be carried out under the auspices of a U.N. mandate. This policy, if passed, would confine French military planners to pursuing the goals of the United Nations and restrict their room to maneuver in protecting Paris' interests in conflict zones. (By extension, this could also give France less incentive to act in a crisis on the continent.) From Melenchon's statements, it is unclear whether he would seek to draw down France's counterterrorism operations in the Sahel or place them under a U.N. mandate.
The Would-Be Outsiders
In a campaign season that has so far seemed to reward political outsiders, Filon, the former prime minister, and Macron, the onetime economy minister, have touted reformist agendas in hopes of gaining traction among voters. But when it comes to Africa policy, Fillon, at least, has struggled to break with the past. His proposals for the continent have largely reflected those of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012. In fact, in November, Fillon described French colonization as a way for France to "share its culture with the peoples of Africa, Asia, and North America." (His attempt to denounce the concept of Francafrique took another hit when it was revealed that he had accepted tens of thousands of dollars' worth of suits from Robert Bourgi, a French political adviser known to represent certain Francafrique power networks.) As it stands, Fillon has refused to weigh in on the Franc CFA debate, sticking to the line that the choice of currency belongs to Africans themselves.
Macron is another well-entrenched insider in French politics. In fact, as a former government minister, banker and National School of Public Administration graduate, he is arguably the biggest product of the ruling establishment among the four contenders. But unlike Fillon, Macron is trying to spearhead a political movement that falls somewhere between the left and right on the political spectrum. Should he win the presidency, Macron would likely be comfortable with maintaining France's current security strategy and the Franc CFA, assuming African countries still want it. He has tried, however, to distance himself from the less palatable aspects of France's history on the continent by denouncing colonization in Algeria. Macron has also insisted on sending more development funds to impoverished African countries in return for their help in tamping down on illegal immigration.
What Unites Them, Mostly
Despite their differences, France's frontrunners (with the possible exception of Melenchon) broadly align on a few policies. The first is France's defense posture in Africa. After the conclusion of "Operation Serval," a military intervention in Mali intended to save France's collapsing ally that began in 2013, Paris rearranged its troops into a 3,000-strong counterterrorism force spread across the Sahel. Its goal was to prevent the re-emergence of transnational militant groups capable of threatening France's regional partners and interests. Regardless of who wins the presidency in May, France's counterterrorism footprint is unlikely to change, since Paris has too many critical economic, political and security interests on the continent to ignore.
The same is true of France's need to cut down on illegal immigration. Over the past few months, French voters have made it clear that they expect more attention to be paid to blocking illegal migrants from entering the country. Amid a persistent economic downturn, unemployment in France has reached 10 percent, which has given rise to backlash against the arrival of foreign workers from the Middle East and Africa. It is little surprise, then, that all four candidates have worked to underscore their strategies for cracking down on illegal immigration.
Each politician has denounced and vowed to end the long-standing system of Francafrique as well. Though the system has long since diminished (indeed, its death has already been declared several times before) it is an easy scapegoat for candidates to use to drum up popular support while distancing themselves from France's controversial legacy. In place of the old system, the potential presidents have put forth their own visions of a stronger "francophonie" — a term used to denote the French-speaking world. Melenchon, for his part, has suggested building a new relationship based on the protection and promotion of the use of the French language. His rivals even agree that this approach is a key part of France's quest to stay an influential power abroad. If Paris steps up its investment in the francophonie at large, it would certainly be a boon to Francophone Africa — the fastest-growing collection of French-speakers on the planet. So, as Europe holds its collective breath ahead of France's election, another continent is no doubt sharing its anticipation.