A series of coups have highlighted France’s often troubled relationships in Africa. We visit Senegal to see what needs fixing.
It’s a hot, humid September morning in Dakar but that doesn’t dent the enthusiasm of Ibrahima Diagne’s students as they climb the 100 or so steps up to the African Renaissance Monument. Towering over the Senegalese capital, the 49-metre-tall bronze sculpture depicting a man, a woman and a child gazing towards the Atlantic has divided opinion since it was unveiled in 2010. Some Dakar residents dislike its style (it was built by a North Korean team), while others grumble about its cost of more than €28m. Its fans, however, consider the monument to be an inspiring symbol. Diagne, a teacher in his thirties, is among the latter. “It captures our confidence,” he tells monocle. “This is a new era for Africa and we are a new generation.”
While his teenage students pose for selfies around the sculpture, Diagne tells us about the transformation of the continent as he adjusts his baseball cap to shade his face from the sun. Since 2020 there has been a wave of coups across the Sahel – the belt of sub-Saharan Africa that begins in Senegal in the west and ends in Sudan in the east – unnerving both democrats and autocrats in other African capitals. Local dynamics were crucial but what the five affected countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Niger) have in common is that they are all former French colonies. Apart from in Chad, where Paris endorsed a military takeover after the killing of the country’s president, the four other coups were accompanied by anti-French rhetoric, including accusations that the deposed leaders were too close to France. In September, Le Monde asked whether Senegal, also a former French colony, might be next.
Diagne believes that such a scenario is unlikely. While the putsch-hit countries all had a significant, often fiercely resented French military presence, Paris closed its army bases in Senegal in 2010 and is planning to further reduce the number of its remaining military personnel – of whom there are about 300 – by the end of the year. More generally, the Franco-Senegalese relationship is considered among the most stable on the continent. But there is still room for improvement, says Diagne. “Most Senegalese want more balance in our relations with France. We have nothing against the French but the country needs to reassess its approach to Africa and start looking at us as equals.”
In 2017 the election of Emmanuel Macron – who was born after France’s last colony on the continent, Djibouti, gained independence – raised hopes of a new kind of French engagement with Africa. “I am of a generation that doesn’t tell Africans what to do,” he told students in Burkina Faso shortly after his victory. He pledged to return artefacts looted during the colonial era and insisted that the murky tangle of overlapping postcolonial business and political connections known as la françafrique was a thing of the past. Earlier this year he pledged to withdraw more of the French troops based on the continent (who currently number more than 5,000) and create what he calls a new “security partnership”. But many believe that this is too little, too late. “French influence in the Sahel has collapsed,” Le Monde declared in September. “Elsewhere on the continent, it is on the defensive and there is no guarantee that Paris will be able to restore it.”
Given the particularities of Franco-Senegalese relations, Dakar is an interesting place to examine France’s waning influence in Africa and to assess the positions of the other external actors that are eager to fill the resulting vacuum: particularly China but also Russia. These powers still consider countries such as Senegal as “prey”, says Senegalese writer Elgas. “Trade agreements are unbalanced and the rentier economy prevails,” he tells monocle. “It’s difficult to say who is winning as things evolve. This dynamic [echoes] colonisation: they’re viewing the continent only through the logic of predation.”
"We have nothing against the French but the country needs to reassess its approach to Africa and start looking at us as equals"
In Dakar, a coastal metropolis with a population of about four million, France is highly visible. Head downtown and you’ll find government ministries and the City Hall housed in buildings that are unmistakably from the colonial era. The country’s contemporary influence, meanwhile, can be seen in the proliferation of some of its biggest companies. The city and suburbs are dotted with French supermarkets such as Auchan and Casino. There are French banks, boulangeries and petrol stations owned by French energy firm TotalEnergies. French phone networks, including Orange and Free, dominate the market. Last year, Pathé cinemas opened a multiplex in the Mermoz-Sacré-Coeur district. Highway tolls on the road linking downtown Dakar to the international airport are collected by French construction firm Eiffage, which has operated here since the 1920s.
Daily life in Senegal is facilitated by the cfa franc, the currency used by 14 Francophone countries in Africa and pegged to the euro under a French government guarantee. Its critics argue that this allows France to control the economies of the nations that use it. Paris counters that it contributes to economic stability. Calls to abolish the currency, which dates back to the colonial era, are frequent across Francophone Africa, including in Senegal. Campaigns against the cfa franc are often associated with Frapp-France Dégage, a populist movement that has gained traction among Senegalese youth.
There’s a clear generational divide when it comes to critiques of France in Senegal. Many young people, struggling with limited prospects, are frustrated by what they see as the complacency of older, French-educated elites who are out of touch with a rapidly changing continent where the median age is 18. The imf recently named Senegal as one of Africa’s strongest-growing economies, yet youth unemployment here is at almost 20 per cent. As in other former French colonies, many young Senegalese resent Paris’s strict visa rules and some have decided to embark on perilous sea journeys to Europe in search of opportunities. More than 60 migrants died in August when a boat that set sail from Senegal capsized off Cape Verde.
"We want a sovereign Senegal and a sovereign Africa. There is no doubt that France has to change – but is it willing to?"
Frapp’s leader, parliamentarian Guy Marius Sagna, is in Europe when monocle drops by its HQ in a middle-class suburb of Dakar, so we talk to another senior member, Souleymane Guèye. The bespectacled 31-year-old engineer shows us the portraits of African independence heroes that are hanging in the sparsely furnished offices. Frapp’s full name translates as “Front for a Popular, Pan-African, Anti-Imperialist Revolution – France Get Out!” The movement is part of a wider opposition cohort that portrays Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, a former geologist who has a close relationship with Macron, as a French puppet.
In June a court in Senegal sentenced Sall’s main political opponent, Ousmane Sonko, to two years in prison for “corrupting youth” (he was also accused of rape but was cleared of the charge). This sparked mass demonstrations in which at least 16 people were killed. Auchan supermarkets and TotalEnergies petrol stations were targeted. Following the unrest, Sall ruled out running for a third term in next year’s presidential elections. Sonko was subsequently charged with further offences, including fomenting insurrection and undermining state security. His party was then dissolved, setting off more protests.
Many Dakarois describe these events as the worst political violence in Senegal in recent memory. The situation remains tense. Scrubbed-out graffiti criticising Sall and his links with France can be seen in several neighbourhoods. In recent months, murals mocking the former colonial power or depicting it as an economic predator have appeared across the city, only to be quickly painted over. monocle spots some fresher graffiti featuring variations on “France dégage!” (“France get out!”) or references to la françafrique, usually preceded by expletives. “France is the face of imperialism in Senegal,” says Guèye. “We want a sovereign Senegal and a sovereign Africa. There is no doubt that France has to change – but is it willing to?”
In an airy office overlooking Dakar’s Independence Square, ringed by mid-century residential blocks and Senegal’s red-and-white, colonnaded foreign ministry, Nicolas Soyere has plenty to say about the subject. Born in France, he has lived in Senegal for more than 20 years and holds dual citizenship. Soyere is the general secretary of the local branch of EuroCham, or the European Chamber of Commerce, a business organisation that is present in 18 countries across Africa. Passionate about improving investment in Senegal, he is also critical of Paris’s approach, though he warns that anti-French sentiment on the continent is often exploited by populists and political leaders to distract people from their own shortcomings. He smiles when monocle mentions a recent Le Monde headline quoting France’s foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, who insisted that la françafrique had been dead for a long time. “It’s not dead yet,” he says. “In countries such as Senegal, France helps governments to close their budget by giving them money. What else can we call that but la françafrique?” Complaints about a lack of French transparency are often justified, he says. “France should look at how other European countries act. You can negotiate bilateral contracts, make them public and be more transparent. You can invest in good communication to better explain to African populations what you are doing.”
Despite geopolitical tensions, Dakar is bustling and full of life at street level
France remains an important economic partner for Senegal even though Dakar has been courting investors from China, Turkey and the Gulf for more than a decade; Turkish construction firms built Dakar’s international airport and convention centre. Senegal’s relationship with Beijing has developed with striking speed. China overtook France as its largest bilateral trading partner in 2019. Chinese exports to Senegal were worth about €4bn last year. As in other African countries, Beijing has invested in flagship infrastructure, including a national theatre, a football stadium and an arena dedicated to wrestling, which is by far Senegal’s most popular sport.
Chinese media reported in August that the country’s largest weapons producer, Norinco, had opened an office in Dakar. Though France continues to be Senegal’s main arms supplier, China is now the number-three provider of munitions to Africa, behind Russia and the US. Moscow also has Senegal in its sights. It has been waging a charm offensive across Africa, strengthening commercial ties and winning diplomatic allies (as African leaders’ refusals to censure Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine have shown), while also exploiting historical resentments in former French colonies. Russian mercenary group Wagner pushed into the Sahel as France was driven out of Mali and then Burkina Faso. “Paris’s difficulty in Africa seems to be Moscow’s opportunity,” says one Senegalese business owner. In 2021, Senegal was Russia’s second-biggest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa was its biggest), with bilateral trade worth €1.2bn.
Moscow is also keen to project soft power here and rekindle memories of a time when many Senegalese artists, particularly from within its then-renowned film industry, had strong ties with the Soviet Union. Key to this effort is Oumy Sène, whose Ukrainian mother and Senegalese father met when the latter was studying in Russia. Sène spent her childhood between Dakar and Soviet-era Moscow. She consults for Russian companies and attended the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg in July, where she told delegates of her plans to open a Russian cultural centre in Senegal’s capital. monocle meets her in the imposing, Chinese-built Museum of Black Civilisations, at the opening of a Moscow-funded exhibition featuring photographs of the Russian region of Tatarstan. Like Senegal, most of Tatarstan’s population is Muslim and the exhibition, Islam Under the Snow, emphasises that common religious identity. The entrance to the show is flanked by large Senegalese and Russian flags. Sène tells monocle that the 50 or so guests include diplomats from Cuba, Venezuela, Cameroon and North Korea. Museum staff offer drinks including bissap, made from hibiscus flowers, and bouye, made from the fruit of the baobab tree. Children play between the displays.
French officials often accuse Russia of stoking animosity against France as part of its bid to expand its influence in Africa but Sène rejects the claim. Among those stirring up anti-French sentiment is Kémi Séba, a bearded Franco-Beninese activist with a huge social-media following and a penchant for traditional robes emblazoned with a map of Africa. Séba once lived in Senegal but was expelled in 2017 after he burned a cfa franc note in public, saying that it was a symbol of French “economic imperialism”. He has worked with an organisation linked to Wagner and has boasted of his ties with its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in August in a plane crash that many believe was engineered by the Kremlin.
According to Sène, Paris only has itself to blame for its declining influence. “I know France well – I lived there for some time,” she says. “It is losing in Africa because of its own actions and demeanour.” Opening the exhibition tonight is Russia’s ambassador to Senegal, Dmitry Kourakov, who agrees to talk to monocle. He is one of the Russian foreign ministry’s veteran Africanists and this is his seventh post on the continent. Before arriving in Dakar in 2020, he spent seven years in oil-rich Gabon, the site of Africa’s most recent coup in August. “We’re trying to find our niche in relations with Africa,” he says, insisting that Russia’s plans go far beyond military co-operation. “We want to regain what we lost after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and find ways of mutually beneficial co-operation. It’s not easy. We lost a lot of our experience of doing business in Africa. Few of us speak French and the mentality and legal frameworks here are different. Not many Russian companies are willing to take the risk of investing here.” Kourakov laughs off my question about the future of Wagner. “I am not a fortune teller,” he says. He counters another question about Russian information operations by saying that Western countries do the same. He claims that Putin is a popular figure on this continent (“Africans would like their leaders to be strong like that”) and insists that Moscow is neutral and doesn’t play favourites with politicians here. Evidence of Russian electoral and political interference in at least a dozen African countries, from Madagascar to Libya, suggests the contrary.
If you’re a young, creative, Francophone African, you will be drawn to Dakar, a Congolese film-maker tells monocle over a beachfront dinner in the city’s Almadies arrondissement. Joining us is a consultant from Lisbon who is on her first visit to Senegal. We eat freshly caught seafood with fried plantain and attiéké, a fermented cassava dish, to the sound of the Atlantic lapping the shore. This blend of transplants and locals has helped to create what many consider to be Africa’s most dynamic arts scene. Initiatives such as Black Rock Senegal, an artist residency programme founded by US portraitist Kehinde Wiley in 2019, and Dak’Art, Africa’s largest art biennale, have caught the attention of collectors.
Senegal’s revered first post-independence president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was one of the founders of the anti-colonial Négritude cultural movement. Given that the country has produced leading thinkers on race, decolonisation and pan-Africanism, it’s not surprising that such themes endure. The relationship with France, past and present, is very much part of the conversation, says Senegalese curator Océane Harati. At an opening at her OH Gallery in Dakar, several guests tell monocle that next year’s Dak’Art is expected to be the most politically charged yet. There is much discussion and criticism of France’s recent decision to suspend new co-operation with the art scenes of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, where military regimes hostile to Paris have taken power following coups. France’s culture minister, Rima Abdul Malak, denies that there is a boycott but has confirmed that visas won’t be issued to artists from those countries.
France has long been a significant patron of artistic and cultural projects in Senegal. Creatives within the large Senegalese diaspora there are key to bilateral initiatives and many artists in Dakar aspire to show in Paris. Nevertheless, the creative sector here has not been immune to anti-French political crosswinds. Several young artists are refusing French funding. “Some are radical on this issue or are questioning French support, while others are more ambivalent,” says Delphine Buysse, a Belgian curator at Raw Material Company, a cultural centre in Dakar. “Last week a famous Senegalese artist told me that she doesn’t want to accept funding from France.”
Many in Senegal have also been challenging the use of French as the country’s only official language – a minority of the population speaks it and people here are far more likely to speak Wolof. There has been a notable pushback against the French language in Africa in recent years, as Macron acknowledged at a summit of Francophone countries last year. In July, Mali dropped French as an official language. Some countries have embraced English instead; Algeria and Morocco recently made it mandatory for state schools to teach it. Some former French colonies in Africa have joined the Commonwealth partly because they want to be part of an Anglophone club.
“English is a language of opportunity,” Fallou Bousso, who won silver for Senegal at this year’s African Surfing Championship, tells monocle at the popular Virage beach. Here, surfers of all ages gather to catch the waves that have made the country a prime destination for the watersport. Bousso says that he began to speak English while hanging out with foreign surfers. “It’s more important for young Senegalese like me to learn English than French because it opens up more of the world to us.”
On the day of monocle’s departure from Dakar, the news breaks that France has decided to withdraw its 1,500 troops from Niger and to recall its ambassador to the country as a result of the putsch there in July. Macron initially tried to ignore the large post-coup demonstrations that had regularly been taking place outside the French military base in the capital, Niamey. Paris’s diplomatic defeat is a reminder that its challenges in Africa are likely to worsen before they get better. In our hotel lobby, a television screen tuned to a French channel shows Macron discussing his country’s departure from Niger and insisting yet again that la françafrique no longer exists. But few of the people who we met in Senegal believed that to be the case. Therein lies France’s quandary.