Gabon coup a further setback to France’s strategy in Africa

Despite Macron’s efforts, political power and economic market share is being lost to China, Russia and Turkey

Emmanuel Macron hailed France’s strong ties with 'dynamic and creative' Gabon when he met president Ali Bongo in Libreville in March. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Emmanuel Macron hailed France’s strong ties with “dynamic and creative” Gabon and clasped hands with its president Ali Bongo at a deforestation summit in Libreville in March, striking a warm tone that differed from the strained relations Paris has with many of its former colonies.

Five months later Bongo is under house arrest after being ousted in a coup that eliminated one of France’s few remaining allies in the region and dealt another setback to Macron’s effort to rebuild relations in Africa.

‘Déjà coup’ in Gabon as another African government falls to military ruleOpens in new window ]

Coming barely a month after a putsch in Niger overthrew another French ally, Mohamed Bazoum, a heated debate has begun in Paris about what has gone wrong and what should be done now, if anything.

Dominique de Villepin, a former French prime minister, said the series of coups in one-time French colonies – there have been eight since 2020, starting with Mali – had laid down a challenge for France as grave as the crisis triggered by the independence movement in west Africa in 1956.


“Symbolically and politically, this situation marks a strong decline for France, and unfortunately ... there’s a risk things will deteriorate,” he told France Inter radio.

French officials caution against oversimplifying events in Gabon and Niger, which have very different causes, as did earlier coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Guinea.

They also pointed out that Macron had, since his election in 2017, espoused a new “partnership of equals” approach to the continent and repeatedly said the era of “Françafrique long over. The term refers to the system that took root in the 1960s that saw Paris prop up locally despised leaders – such as Ali Bongo’s father Omar, who ruled for more than 40 years – in exchange for the protection of French businesses and strategic interests.

French prosecutors last year charged at least nine members of the Bongo family after a 15-year investigation into allegations they bought high-end properties in Paris and elsewhere with money from Gabon’s oil wealth.

Protesters wave Russian flags at the French embassy in Kinshasa during the visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo of French president Emmanuel Macron in March. Photograph: Arsene Mpiana/AFP via Getty Images

Despite Macron’s 18 trips to African countries, France has been on the back foot in its one-time sphere of influence, where it has steadily lost economic market share and political power to new rivals, including China, Russia and Turkey.

Its continued military presence in the Sahel, the region south of the Sahara where French troops intervened a decade ago to push back Islamist insurgents at the request of the Malian government, has also become a sore point.

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Although Macron said the end of Operation Barkhane last year and began withdrawing troops, France still has 2,500 soldiers in the region, down from 5,000 in 2020, and many residents see them as having overstayed their welcome.

France’s military bases in Mali and Burkina Faso were closed after the coups there, and its base in Niger is likely to be next, now that the new junta has ordered the 1,500 soldiers to leave. Paris has refused so far, arguing that it does not recognise any government other than the democratically elected Bazoum, who remains under house arrest.

Moscow has been savvy in exploiting anti-French sentiment via social networks and has positioned its Wagner militia group as an alternative to France’s troops to African governments seeking help with security.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development think tank in Nigeria, acknowledged Macron’s efforts to recalibrate the relationship with the continent but said the stain of colonialism still affected how France was perceived, particularly by the younger generation.

“This is not helping France’s attempt to burnish and forge a new relationship when old sores are still open,” he said.

Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister and top Élysée Palace official under François Mitterrand, said in an interview that France had made a mistake in the past decade, albeit a well-intentioned one, by letting military aspects dominate its foreign policy in much of Africa.

“If they don’t want us there we can’t stay and that’s that,” he said. “We have to start over from scratch, and cultivate a more varied relationship based on economic activity, cultural exchanges and soft power.”

A group of almost 100 French lawmakers wrote an open letter to Macron following the Niger coup, asking: “Isn’t it time to thoroughly revamp our vision of Africa and its links to France? We are not resigned to our gradual disappearance from the continent.”

Macron has also called for such a pivot, but has had trouble turning words into actions. One example was his 2019 proposal to rename the CFA franc and loosen French supervision of the currency union that critics say is a “colonial relic” that preserves the dominance of Paris and French companies. The proposed overhaul has not materialised.

On his March visit to Africa, which included the One Forest summit co-hosted with Gabon, Macron sought to show how France could be a constructive partner on matters unrelated to security, such as the fight against climate change. An agriculture partnership was unveiled with Angola to help the former Portuguese colony improve its food security.

Speaking two days before his ally, Bongo, was removed, Macron condemned an “epidemic of putsches” in the region but also acknowledged errors.

“If we’re taken by surprise lately on the African continent, it’s because we had a fixed approach that was so based on proximity and intimacy with those in power that we ended up not seeing the rest of society,” he said. “At some point, when society changes, we no longer have the sensors to understand the new reality.”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023