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Peace and Security for Africa, Made in France

For all the talk of a new approach, it seems France is the only actor able and willing to engage militarily in much of Africa.
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French President François Hollande speaking at the 2013 Elysée Summit for Peace and Security in Africa. Photograph by European Council.

For the French military, the year 2013 ended as it began − namely, with an intervention on the African continent. In January 2013, Operation Serval was launched to repel militant Islamist groups in Northern Mali. And in December, Mission Sangaris − named after an African butterfly known for its light footprint and short lifespan − was launched in an attempt to curb the escalating conflict in the Central African Republic. In stark contrast to France's persistent vows to disengage, 2013 saw it unable to stay away from its traditional backyard.

In an attempt to provide some explanations for France’s recent interventionism in Africa and to lay out the rudiments of its future strategy for African security, France held the 'Elysée Summit for Peace and Security in Africa' in December. Forty African heads of state were there together with representatives from the UN and the European Union, those present discussed African security, the creation of a permanent pan-African rapid-reaction force, the continent’s state of development, global climate change, and economic partnerships between France and Africa.

Pan-African security framework

In terms of African security, France has found itself in a fairly tricky situation as it continues its traditional, cost-intensive interventionism, but while its European partners remain reluctant to commit resources and manpower. This is perhaps one of the reasons Paris is increasingly turning to the continent’s own leaders to help it maintain peace and stability in (at least Francophone) Africa whilst securing French influence in the region and beyond.

According to France's minister of defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s new approach foresees African states ensuring their own security, while France limits itself to playing a supportive role in the establishment of a pan-African security framework. However, Le Drian emphasises that this does not mean France will "leave [its African partners] alone in the face of the risks and threats… which in the long run concern [France] directly."

From Paris’s point of view, calling upon African leaders to ensure the continent’s security is an overdue and financially necessary move. Especially in light of a tightening defence budget, France is no longer able to commit the resources required for maintaining a high-profile security presence in Africa. Operation Serval alone cost the French treasury an estimated €650 million ($900 million) in 2013.

In addition to financial concerns, France may also have political reasons for arguing in favour of a shared approach to security. It is widely understood that hard power alone does not equal influence, and France may be hoping that through this new approach it can expand its global authority. Framing its interventions as part of the global fight against militant Islamism or in the name of Right to Protect makes French security policy attractive to most Western states. Advocating Africa’s self-determination in security matters whilst simultaneously supporting the concerned states financially secures the latter's support.

Having close relations with African leaders has long been central part of France's foreign policy, and to ensure this, it has also been maintaining bilateral links with most West and Central African countries. As one diplomat claimed, France over the past two years has successfully established a network of loyal African elites who are notably distinct from the oftentimes unsavoury members of the traditional post-colonial Françafrique system. This new generation of African leaders constitutes a grateful grouping of friends upon which France can count in the years to come.

A Franco-African affair

In many ways, the recent summit was a suited grandstand showcasing these renewed ties, and the positive response of many African leaders towards France’s Mali and CAR interventions reveals how many African leaders continue to see the necessity of deep French involvement on the continent.

Senegalese President Macky Sall’s somewhat sensational statement that "France could not be praised enough for its stance on African peace and security" was just one illustration of France's success in combining hard and soft power to exert influence at a lower cost (in the long term at least) and without many accusations of neo-colonialism.

Indeed, while there was much ado about France's supposedly new approach towards African security before the summit, the meeting showed that little has actually changed. Despite the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, and President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy, the summit remained essentially a Franco-African affair; and in his inaugural address, French President François Hollande reminded those present of France’s special relationship with the African continent. Likewise, the summit’s joint final declaration basically re-emphasised an old idea; after all, the proposed inter-African intervention force is little more than a paraphrased version of 1998's idea of the Reinforcement of African Peacekeeping Capabilities Programme (RECAMP).

Despite the changing rhetoric and some honest political will on the part of the actors involved to reach a new dispensation for Africa’s security, it seems old methods and approaches are likely to prevail for now. Europe, with its lack of a common security culture, is not ready to take over France’s role in Africa. The US, after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is only too happy to remain off stage. And as for the pan-African intervention force, it still has a long way to go before it will be effective and provide a long-term solution.

In the end, France remains the only actor that is able and, above all, willing to guarantee the security of large parts of Africa. Consequently, it is likely French troops could roam the African continent for some time to come, just as the bi-annual summits that unite the French President and his African counterparts will remain part of the international political landscape. If we can learn one lesson about Franco-African relations from last year, it would be that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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