SHARE
COPY LINK

JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: Putin is advancing rapidly – in his invasion of French-speaking west Africa

Events in Mali and more recently Burkina Faso have proved humiliating for the French government - and while many people won't be shedding any tears for the former colonisers, the advance of Russian militias should concern us all, says John Lichfield.

OPINION: Putin is advancing rapidly - in his invasion of French-speaking west Africa
Burkina Faso is under new leadership after a coup. Photo by Issouf SANOGO / AFP

Russia may be retreating in Ukraine but it is advancing rapidly on another front 7,000 kilometres away in what used to be French west Africa.

Vladimir Putin’s great African offensive – using bribery, lies, mercenaries and some genuine development aid – scored a new victory in recent days in Burkina Faso, one of the ten poorest countries in the world.

The second coup d’état in Ouagadougou in eight months brought to power a 30-something army captain who lauded Moscow and berated the “colonial” iniquities of France.

The immediate loser from Russia’s African campaign is what used to be called “Françafrique” – the once-deep political and economic involvement of France in its former African colonies. That decline is not new and has many causes. It is probably inevitable and might eventually be healthy, for both Africa and France.

If the Kremlin wasn’t involved…

The great losers from Russia’s stealthy invasion of west and central Africa will be the Burkinabés and other Africans. Whatever Vladimir Putin’s motives in building an African empire, it is certainly not to help Africans achieve greater control over their own lives, resources and governments.

The spearhead of Putin’s Africa policy is the Wagner mercenary army, run on the Kremlin’s behalf by a billionaire oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagner army has already been implicated in brutal incidents and massacres in several African countries.

Who popped up this week to praise Burkina Faso’s new young strongman? Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In a bizarre statement, more like that of a government than a billionaire businessman, Prigozhin said that he “saluted and supported” Captain Ibrahim Traoré, a man who acted in the name of “liberty and justice”.

In return, Captain Traoré lambasted France and said that Burkina Faso was ready to seek “other partners ready to help in the fight against terrorism”. The next day the French embassy was attacked and vandalised.

The two statements amounted to a brazen admission that the  coup was planned in Moscow. They also reflect a confidence that many west and central Africans now see Russia as their liberator from “imperialist” France.

Burkina Faso has been bombarded in recent months by social media propaganda accusing the deposed Colonel Damiba of being a French stooge. Similar material has appeared in the French language Russia Today TV channel and Sputnik news agency, which have a growing following in all Francophone central and west Africa countries.

Meanwhile, the various jihadist, radical Islamist forces operating in the Sahel and west and central Africa have been gaining ground (including one third of the territory of Burkina Faso). Russia is not in alliance with the Islamists but it does exploit their success for its own gain.

Trust by local people in the French forces deployed (with mixed effect) to fight the jihadis has been constantly undermined by Russian propaganda. The Islamist insurgence is, the propaganda says, just a pretext for “French colonial” interference. Otherwise, the jihadis would have been defeated long ago.

Mali, next door to Burkina Faso, also suffered a double coup by officers hostile to France in 2020 – leading Emmanuel Macron to end the nine years old French anti-Islamist military deployment in the country. Wagner Russian “mercenaries” are now heavily active in the country (though officially just “instructors”).

Similar anti-French feeling is being stirred up in Niger. In June, President Emmanuel Macron suspended all financial and military aid to Centrafrique (the Central Africa Republic) after accusing its government of being “the hostage of the paramilitary Russian Wagner group”.

France fears similar advances in Senegal and Ivory Coast.

This lightning advance of Russian influence in Africa explains in part Macron’s eloquent and angry speech to the UN last month in which he accused (by implication) African countries of betraying their own long-term interests by refusing to condemn the “new colonialism” of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Anti-French feeling in Africa is not entirely a Russia invention. Successive Presidents since Jacques Chirac have tried to unwind the unhealthy and corrupt relationship which existed until the 1990s between Paris and African political elites. Resentment of France as the former colonial power remains – sometimes justified, sometimes fanciful.

In a sense, France has the worst of both worlds. It paying for its past sins rather than benefiting from its present, sometimes clumsy, efforts to fight Islamist terrorism, reduce corruption and foster democracy. Russian power has spread partly because France can no longer call those shots in Africa which Moscow accuses Paris of calling.

Emmanuel Macron has gone even further than his predecessors in trying to create a new relationship with “Françafrique.”  He invited students, artists and successful entrepreneurs, as well as the usual politicians, to the annual France-Africa summit in Montpellier this year.

Macron has said that it is up to African countries whether they want to carry on with the so-called “African franc”, a shared currency (or actually two regional currencies), tied to the Euro and guaranteed by Paris. The “CFA” is the object of many anti-French fantasies in Africa but provides a stability which has helped all its member countries grow faster than most other African nations.

Into this difficult ground, Russia has advanced with much greater skill than it has shown in its brutal, failed attack on Ukraine. Many Africans have been persuaded that Moscow is their ally against a greedy, hypocritical West.

China has advanced with even more subtlety in other parts of Africa. In both cases, African countries may learn to their cost that they have exchanged one form of colonialism for another – even greedier and more corrupt.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

POLITICS

Revealed: France’s funniest politicians and their best ‘jokes’

Politicians' jokes are more usually met with a groan than a laugh, but France's annual prize for political humour has been awarded - here are the zingers judged the best in 2022.

Revealed: France's funniest politicians and their best 'jokes'

According to the jury on the Press club, Humour et Politique awards, the funniest politician in France is the Communist leader (and 2022 presidential candidate) Fabien Roussel.

His award-winning zinger is: “La station d’essence est le seul endroit en France où celui qui tient le pistolet est aussi celui qui se fait braquer.”

It translates as ‘the petrol station is the only place where the one holding the gun is also the one who is robbed’ – a joke that works much better in French where ‘pistolet’ means both a pistol and the petrol pump. 

On a side note for British readers – Roussel also looks quite a lot like left-wing UK comedian Stewart Lee, so maybe he has funny genes.

Second prize went to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy with his withering assessment of Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for his old party in the 2022 presidential election, who did extremely badly.

“Ce n’est pas parce que tu achètes de la peinture, une toile et des pinceaux que tu deviens Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, elle a pris mes idées, mon programme et elle a fait 4.8 pourcent”

“It’s not because one buys paints, canvas and brushes that you become Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, she took my ideas, my manifesto and she got 4.8 percent of the vote.”

While these two were jokes – in the loosest sense of the word – the prize can also be awarded to politicians who make people laugh inadvertently, such as last year’s winner Marlène Schiappa who, when announcing plans to ban polygamy, felt the need to tell the French, “On ne va pas s’interdire les plans à trois” – we’re not going to outlaw threesomes.

Here’s the full list of finalists for the funniest political joke of 2022 – somehow we don’t think you’re at risk of split sides with any of these.

Ex-Prime minister Edouard Philippe talking about hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon: “Il faut une certaine audace pour que quelqu’un qui a été battu à une élection où il était candidat puisse penser qu’il sera élu à une élection où il n’est pas candidat!”

“It takes a certain audacity for someone who was defeated in an election where he was a candidate to think that he will be elected in an election where he is not a candidate!”

Ex-Assemblée nationale president Richard Ferrand: “Elisabeth Borne est formidable mais personne ne le sait.”

“Elisabeth Borne is great but no-one knows it.”

Ex-Macronist MP Thierry Solère: “Mon anatomie fait que si j’ai le cul entre deux chaises, je suis parfaitement assis.”

“My anatomy means that if I have my ass between two chairs, I am perfectly seated.”

Some information that might be useful for this one – the French phrase avoir le cul entre deux chaises (to have your ass between two chairs) is the equivalent of the English ‘falling between two stools’ – ie a person who cannot make up their mind what or who to support. Further information; Solère is a largish bloke.

Hard-left MP Eric Coquerel: “S’imaginer qu’on va remplacer Jean-Luc Mélenchon comme ça, c’est une vue de l’esprit. C’est comme se poser la question de qui va remplacer Jaurès.”

“To imagine that we will replace [party leader] Jean-Luc Mélenchon like that, is purely theoretical. It is like asking the question of who will replace Jaurès.”

Jean Jaurès is a revered figure on the French left, but not currently very active in politics, since he was assassinated in 1914.

Rachida Dati to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Votre présence au Conseil de Paris est aussi anecdotique que votre score à la présidentielle.”

“Your presence at the Council of Paris is as anecdotal as your score in the presidential election.”

There’s no doubt that Hidalgo did humiliatingly badly in the presidential election with a score of 1.75 percent. Daiti didn’t stand in the presidential elections but she did put herself forward to be mayor of Paris in 2020 and was convincingly beaten by . . . Anne Hidalgo.

So that’s the ‘jokes’, but there were also some entries for inadvertently funny moments.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Tous les matins, je me lève en me disant que tout le monde m’aime.”

“Every morning, I wake up and tell myself that everyone loves me.”

But the undisputed queen of this genre is the green MP Sandrine Rousseau, whose ideas and policy announcements seem to have provoked a great deal of mirth.

Je voudrais qu’il y ait une possibilité de délit de non-partage des tâches domestiques – I would like there to be the possibility of a crime of not equally sharing domestic tasks

Les SDF meurent plus de chaleur l’été que l’hiver – The homeless die from heat more in the summer than the winter

Il faut changer aussi de mentalité pour que manger une entrecôte cuite sur un barbecue ne soit plus un symbole de virilité – We must also change our mentality so that eating a steak cooked on a barbecue is no longer a symbol of virility.

If you prefer your humour a little more scientific, Phd researcher Théo Delemazure has done a study of which politicians and political parties are funniest when speaking in parliament.

He analysed how often speeches raise a smile or a laugh (which presumably includes sarcastic laughter) and concluded that the party that gets the most laughs is the hard-left La France Insoumise.

They are also the party that speaks most often, however, when he calculated the laughter rate per time spent speaking, the prize went to the centre-right Les Républicains.

SHOW COMMENTS