Africa: Dissecting France’s ‘schizophrenic’ aid policy

By Alain Faujas
Posted on Monday, 26 July 2021 07:48

France’s President Emmanuel Macron poses for selfies during a visit to the French Louis Pasteur high school on 4 July 2018 in Lagos © Ludovic MARIN / PISCINE / AFP

In his book titled “La Politique de Coopération - Je T'aide Moi Non Plus”, researcher Philippe Marchesin examines French aid since 1958.

This is a fine book that sets out to provide an alternative to the official discourse on the virtues of official development assistance that France has been providing since 1960. And it succeeds in doing so.

The book written by Philippe Marchesin, a lecturer and researcher in the political science department of the Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, defends an already well-established idea. Before him, Tibor Mende, Dambisa Moyo and Thomas Sankara all denounced the negative effects that these apparently generous transfers from rich countries had on poor nations.

What sets this book apart is that it focuses on what the author refers to as ‘schizophrenia’, that is related to France’s cooperation with its former colonies, since its aid hides a lot of self-interest.

Another interesting aspect of this work is the scope of the study: Marschesin worked with his students for 10 years to highlight, in 684 pages, “the permanent gap between good intentions and the cold reality of national interest.” And finally, the geographical and political angle that the author decided to adopt, which mainly deals with Françafrique, as seen by the many quotes from Jacques Foccart.

“Philippe Marchesin writes in his introduction that ‘basically, the aim of this book is to change our perception of how we view aid, by examining less what the donor gives and more what he keeps or receives.’”

Politics of influence

The speeches and positions of France’s past eight presidents provide proof of this. General de Gaulle, who was known as the father of cooperation policy and established France’s Fifth Republic in 1958, said it is clear that “the money we give to help underdeveloped countries is not money lost in any way. I even consider it to be a very good investment.”

Aid should be directed more towards individuals and associations than governments, so that the real needs of the populations can be met

Georges Pompidou, who succeeded him, reoriented this policy towards cultural influence. The dissemination of the French language became an ‘absolute priority’ because it was ‘of the utmost importance to spread our language throughout the world.’

As a result, the budget for educational aid was almost doubled. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing gave a more economic and technocratic twist. He asserted that “France will be Africa’s tireless advocate”, but that “there is also something in it for us.”

François Mitterrand officially broke with Françafrique. In his La Baule speech, he declared that aid would only be given to countries that take steps towards democracy. This shift did not last long, as the president quickly specified that each country should progress towards democratisation “at its own pace” and noted that the real minister for cooperation was Elf’s CEO.

We encourage aid that helps us do without aid–Thomas Sankara

Jacques Chirac was full of contradictions. He displayed great generosity when he saved some African countries from bankruptcy, but was remarkably lenient with old French-speaking dictators. He denounced cotton subsidies from rich countries, but was also one of the most ardent defenders of the European Common Agricultural Policy, which affects Africa.

Although Nicolas Sarkozy also announced the end of Françafrique, he actually extended it, thereby preventing Chad’s President Idriss Déby from being overthrown. Pierre Lellouche, his foreign trade minister, presented the official aid budget to the National Assembly and declared that “at a time of budgetary rigour and record trade deficits, we can no longer afford to provide official development assistance without thinking about foreign trade.”

François Hollande had planned to bring an end to Françafrique.

It is worth noting that French aid was becoming more ecological and greener. But the economic crisis made France less generous and the emergence of Sahelian terrorist groups forced the president to deal with deplorable heads of state. Economic diplomacy prevailed and Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign affairs minister, set the tone by stating that “the French Development Agency must be fully committed to promoting French companies and expertise abroad.”


Emmanuel Macron has stated that “France no longer has an African policy.” He has a very entrepreneurial approach as he has significantly increased the aid budget, is focusing on youth and modernity and intends to promote a partnership with Africa. The deterioration of the security situation has also forced him to make concessions to realpolitik and financially support states whose management is far from his liking.

On closing the book, one can hardly help but share the author’s opinion, that – under the guise of aid and solidarity, which they constantly extol in their speeches – France’s leaders have constantly pursued a policy of influence. They have sought to benefit companies and exports. Developing Africa today means reducing immigration. As a matter of fact, the ambiguity of French aid is comparable to that of the US or China.

We can no longer afford to provide official development assistance without thinking about foreign trade.

But what is the ‘right’ kind of aid? One that, in the words of Alain Mabanckou, is not “a sumptuous swindle” nor a source of corruption? Marchesin does not elaborate too much on this. He simply states that aid should be directed more towards individuals and associations than governments, so that the real needs of the populations can be met. It should no longer mix foreign trade and support for the most disadvantaged.

The author believes that for emerging countries that are on the right track, the boost can take the form of advantageous loans. But for the poorest – that do not have the means to provide for basic needs in terms of food, health and schooling – only donations are suitable.

Perhaps it is best to remember, above all, the words of Sankara, who declared in 1984 before the United Nations Assembly that “we encourage aid that helps us do without aid.”

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