Even so, France has intervened in sub-Saharan Africa on five different occasions in the past 10 years, in addition to using quieter intelligence and surveillance operations and countless semipermanent military campaigns. Most recently, France launched Operation Barkhane, an ongoing counterterrorism initiative spanning five countries in Africa's Sahel region and involving more than 3,000 personnel. So it seems that France's military role in Africa will endure.
In postcolonial Africa, France strived to consolidate its existing influence in the continent's northern, western and central regions by offering its former colonies there various assurances. Following their independence, 12 countries signed secret national defense agreements with France. The agreements, which have never been made public, allow France to retain a physical presence in the countries in exchange for defending their national sovereignty. France further cemented its clout in its former colonies by maintaining critical economic infrastructure, disbursing development aid and building influential social networks and institutions. For instance, France's treasury backs the CFA franc currency used by 14 African countries. To discourage any external or domestic challenges to its primacy, France orchestrated coups and interventions. The list of Francophone African leaders who tried — and failed — to defy or reduce French authority is long.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, France's sway in Africa has faltered. Rising economic competition from China, the United States and the Gulf Arab states, among others, has plunged France's market share in the continent to historic lows. In addition, France's lagging economy has led to cuts in development aid, institutional funding and military spending. With the passing of a generation of French and Francophone African leaders — such as Ivory Coast's first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who served as a deputy in France's National Assembly — France has become just another international actor vying for African attention. Moreover, in recent years, France's globalizing economic activities and acquisitions have eclipsed its need to sustain such close ties to its former colonies. Nevertheless, France jealously defends its economic and security interests in Africa, undertaking popular counterterrorism and security missions and intervening in conflicts when it sees fit.
Given its long history in Francophone Africa, France has a clear understanding of its national interests there and, in turn, of the threats that jeopardize those interests. Of particular concern are threats to connectivity and supply chain infrastructure, such as roads, rail networks or major international airports (many African countries have only one). Each is important in its own right, but airports remain the most essential, given the tyranny of distance and lack of solid road infrastructure in Africa. Control of the airports ensures the continued flow of goods, military equipment and personnel between France and its former colonies. In 2008, as Sudanese-backed rebels approached Chad's capital, N'Djamena, French troops stationed in the country since 1986 set up defensive positions at the international airport, safeguarding the country's main channel to the outside world.
This control also provides France with leverage over regimes at risk of collapse or overthrow. Though secret, many of the national defense agreements allegedly stipulate that France is obliged to protect a nation's sovereignty rather than its government. This grants France the latitude to determine when (and whether) a regime merits protecting. For example, in 2012 the president of the Central African Republic, Francois Bozize, called on France to support his administration in the face of impending rebellion. French President Francois Hollande rebuffed his plea, reiterating that France intervenes to secure its own interests and not those of any government. Before appealing to Paris, Bozize had wanted to move his country away from France's sphere of influence, courting South Africa as an alternative backer. Consequently, when Bozize asked for help, France was best poised to gain by inaction. Only after the rebels chased Bozize into exile did French forces deploy to guard the flow of traffic at the country's lone international airport in Bangui.
In the Chad conflict, Paris employed a similar strategy. After taking power in a Libyan-backed revolt in 1990, President Idriss Deby dismantled Chad's French- and American-backed government and bristled at France's presence in the country. But after Paris helped save his administration in 2008, Deby realized that he stood to benefit by ingratiating himself to France. To that end, Chad has become a backbone of France's strategy in Africa, supplying thousands of soldiers to aid in efforts against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, and in France's intervention in the Central African Republic.
A Wait-and-See Policy
For any number of reasons, French military planners in Africa adhere to a "wait-and-see" policy when crises such as coups or uprisings unfold. Because France has limited resources and manpower at its disposal, it will intervene in a conflict only once it has escalated. Furthermore, waiting may enable France to intervene — or not — at the optimal time and place to maximize its gains. During the early stages of Mali's Tuareg rebellion and after the coup that displaced civilian rule there, for instance, France opted not to step in because the instability did not pose a sufficient threat to its interests. Instead, France interceded only once the situation became a serious transnational terrorist insurgency that threatened to overwhelm the entire country. Paris then mobilized far and wide to beat back the jihadists in Mali. Since this endeavor aligned with the United States' counterterrorism goals, France enjoyed extensive U.S. support in the operation. Moreover, the international community widely hailed France's efforts as a defeat for Islamic terrorism in the Sahel, boosting the country's image across the region.
At the same time, this circumspect approach puts France in a reactive position. Destabilizing events may now drive French action in Africa. Meanwhile, France occupies a unique position on the continent, having not only a large presence but also the political capital to take action there. These combined factors can propel France into conflicts it does not fully understand. A 2014 French government report revealed that soldiers who participated in France's 2013 Operation Sangaris in the Central African Republic experienced a higher rate of trauma than those who fought in Afghanistan. Among the factors cited were the unanticipated dangers and "horrors of the civil war," a poorly identified enemy, and French troops who were ill-equipped and underprepared. The report's authors further noted that, due to the state's growing military demands, the French army's traditional training and deployment cycle has noticeably contracted, hampering the force's overall efficacy.
The Next Intervention
France's traditional role in Africa provides a basis from which to assess the circumstances that would provoke a future intervention on the continent. The past several conflicts in which France intervened involved the near total collapse of authority in a former colony. But as long as it does not threaten the security environment, Paris can tolerate a certain level of instability, such as a rebellion in a remote region. In light of these considerations, the current situation in Mauritania provides a potential flashpoint. Weak under the best of circumstances, Mauritania has long used economic resources to buy support for the government in Nouakchott among the country's various tribal factions. But now, the country's resources are dwindling and falling increasingly into the hands of the president's clan. As a result, Mauritania's tribal factions, whose support is integral to preserving harmony in the country, are becoming agitated.
On top of this, the country's president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who has held office since a 2009 coup, may push for a controversial third term. This could deepen fissures in the country, possibly leading to coup attempts, an occurrence familiar to Nouakchott. Furthermore, regional terrorist groups such as AQIM have successfully used Mauritania as a transit zone for attacks in nearby countries. If the groups were to redirect their efforts to destabilizing Nouakchott or using Mauritanian territory to conduct more transnational operations and recruitment, they could make significant inroads with the country's dissatisfied population. And since Mauritania falls mostly outside of Operation Barkhane's scope, terrorist groups may have more room to work there. If the president continues to narrow his patronage priorities, denying resources to tribal and other constituents and upsetting the country's traditional balance of power, backlash against the president and his clan is likely.
At this point, France — whose principal interest is stability — may view Abdel Aziz as a threat to regional security. To mitigate this risk, Paris could provide intelligence and encouragement to forces aligning against the president. But if deeper instability erupts in Mauritania, Paris will likely be compelled to intervene more overtly. Other international actors, such as the United States, would likely urge France to action because it remains the only country with the interest, ability, political capital and regional knowledge to undertake such a mission. And this is not only true in Mauritania. Because of this reality, France's interventions in Africa will continue.