Beijing has cultivated Senegal with gifts – including a Museum of Black Civilisations - centring on the country as ‘the gateway to West Africa’. Picture by Beth via flickr (CC BY NC 2.0).
Short analysis
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China in Francophone West Africa: A challenge to Paris

China’s presence in countries like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire is growing rapidly. While France’s influence in the region is waning, there is little doubt who is poised to step into the gap. 
Tom Bayes was a Visiting Academic Fellow at MERICS from July 2019 until February 2020. He is the author of a forthcoming report on China in West African security that was supported by MERICS and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).

When Emmanuel Macron and Alassane Ouattara announced the unwinding of France’s role in the West African CFA Franc currency union in December 2019, it suggested to most observers a loosening of the ties of Françafrique, that peculiar – at times problematic – nexus of French political, cultural and economic power in her former African colonies. Macron has called time on the Françafrique paradigm – already an outdated image of France’s role – and France’s exclusive pre-eminence in the region is a thing of the past, its commercial dominance eroded. Where in 2000 France was the number one exporter to all of its African former colonies, by 2017 it retained this status in only three. And Paris is keen to share – not jealously guard – its increasingly thankless security role in West Africa.

Beijing has its sights on Francophone West Africa

If France’s influence is waning, there is little doubt who is poised to step into the gap. China’s presence in Francophone West Africa is booming, having previously lagged other parts of the continent. Drawn to growth rates over seven percent in countries like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, China has displaced France as the leading exporter to most of France’s former colonies. Chinese lending to these countries increased 332 percent in 2010 - 17 compared to 2000 - 09, and contracts awarded to Chinese firms trebled in value in the same period – with Chinese contractors taking on high-profile projects like the Soubré dam in Côte d’Ivoire. Chinese companies and entrepreneurs are highly visible throughout the region. 

This economic emergence is backed by a concerted Beijing push to deepen China’s footprint in Francophone West Africa, centring on Senegal as ‘the gateway to West Africa’ (西非门户). Xi visited the country in 2018, baptising it a Comprehensive Strategic Partner and the first West African state to join the BRI (all bar Benin have followed suit). Beijing has cultivated Senegal with gifts – including an arena for the national sport and a Museum of Black Civilisations – and selected it as the first Francophone and West African country to host the FOCAC Summit (to be held in Dakar in 2021). Chinese analysts expect this to pave the way for a deeper penetration of Francophone West Africa.

Chinese diplomats nonetheless privately comment that Francophone West Africa is a tougher nut to crack than Anglophone regions. Language has been one challenge. Chinese learners of English vastly outnumber their French-learning compatriots (numbering approximately 20,000 university majors). A dearth of qualified Francophones coupled with Chinese companies’ surging demand for translators for a time made French one of the most lucrative majors at Chinese universities. However, lack of French skills is not an insuperable barrier to enterprising Chinese. Multiple entrepreneurs interviewed on recent research trips had arrived without any French, content to pick it up on the go. Indeed, an important development is the number of Chinese migrants bypassing French altogether to conduct their business in Bambara, Wolof, and other African languages. With the Beijing Foreign Studies University expanding its range of African languages, this trend is not limited to the informal level – and may emerge as a valuable soft power tool.  

China gives West Africa new options

Chinese analysts recognize France as the leading foreign power in Africa, offering a benchmark, if not necessarily a model. China is determined to contrast its ‘win-win’ Africa policy with an allegedly (neo-)colonialist Western approach, of which Françafrique is the most obvious example. Even as Macron attempts to shift Franco-African relations onto a more even footing, colonial history and present-day asymmetries are hard to undo. Anti-French sentiment in West Africa offers fertile ground for Beijing’s rhetoric, allowing it to present itself as a fresh alternative. As a West African parliamentarian recently told me, ‘China offers us room to breathe’.

A rival or a partner for Paris?

China’s emergence in West Africa directly challenges French economic interests. Chinese companies have moved into sectors long dominated by French players: civil engineering, extractives, telecoms, ports. French national champions – Vinci, Eiffage, Orange, Bouygues, Total, Areva, Alstom – must now go toe-to-toe with Beijing’s giants, which benefit from the kind of state patronage Paris used to offer its star companies.

But there is also scope for economic cooperation. French and Chinese companies have on occasion broken from open competition to partner on specific African projects. French companies offer high-end capabilities and a wealth of operational knowledge of Francophone Africa. Aided by their presence in the Chinese domestic market, companies such as Suez and Alstom have won subcontractor roles for Chinese projects in Africa. Logistics giant Bolloré signed a ‘global partnership’ with Alibaba in 2018. And as Société Générale has found, there are rich pickings for French companies servicing Chinese entrants to Francophone Africa.  

This commercial cooperation was the basis of a 2015 - 16 drive by Paris to secure deeper Franco-Chinese collaboration in Africa. In 2015, the two sides agreed to promote partnerships in third markets, principally in Africa, and Paris appointed an ambassador for Franco-Chinese partnership in Africa. However, this drive ran aground on the limited appetite for state-guided, formal partnership among companies mostly in direct competition. A planned China-France-Africa business summit in Dakar never took place and a mooted cooperation fund was stillborn.

Macron changes tack

Since becoming president in 2017, Macron has reinvigorated France’s global role – and recast its ties with Africa (including greater emphasis on Anglophone Africa). He has also taken a robust line on China – notably emphasising a unified European stance – and warned Africa of the danger of Chinese debt. But he has also appealed to Beijing as a ‘partner’  in Africa, denying they were ‘strategic rivals’. To reanimate Franco-Chinese cooperation on Africa, Macron has shifted the focus to security and development cooperation, notably on climate. During a 2018 China visit, Macron announced a partnership between China Development Bank and the Agence Française de Développement for African climate projects, and solicited Chinese funding for the G5 Sahel joint force combating terrorism in West Africa. Beijing has since provided limited, but growing, support to the G5.

China is a reticent partner in Africa    

Encounters in Africa are just one dimension of a multifaceted Franco-Chinese relationship that stretches from the UNSC to France’s military presence in the Pacific, via trade issues and Brussels. Greater cooperation in Africa is appealing as a thread to strengthen these ties, while also shaping developments on the continent. But Paris has relatively little to show for its efforts so far. A China determined to go it alone and differentiate itself from other international players in Africa is wary of being seen to cosy up to France. Meanwhile African states stand to gain more from international partners competing for their affections – and contracts – a point noted to me recently by a Senegalese foreign ministry official. Paris’ slow going offers a lesson to other European actors seeking greater Africa cooperation with China.

Tom Bayes was a Visiting Academic Fellow at MERICS from July 2019 until February 2020. He is the author of a forthcoming report on China in West African security that was supported by MERICS and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).