Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Macron Isn’t So Post-Colonial After All

National sovereignty is one thing. Monetary sovereignty is another.

By , a senior policy advisor with the Human Rights Foundation, and , the chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation.
French President Emmanuel Macron greets people at Félix Houphouët Boigny International Airport in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Dec. 20, 2019.
French President Emmanuel Macron greets people at Félix Houphouët Boigny International Airport in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Dec. 20, 2019. SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images

Emmanuel Macron is the first French president born after the end of colonialism, and in many ways, he personifies this generational break through his forward-looking approach to Africa. In 2017, he famously called French colonialism “truly barbarous” and a “crime against humanity” while on a visit to Algeria. Yet, he has done little to abolish the most enduring vestige of French colonialism: Paris’s continued monetary control over 14 sub-Saharan African countries.

France created the French Colonies of Africa (CFA) franc in the wake of World War II, when it oversaw the world’s second largest colonial empire. With help from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, this exploitative system of monetary control has outlasted colonialism, which largely ended in the early 1960s, and allowed France to farm a vast African territory for strategic resources and secure lucrative export markets. Historically, the CFA system has also generated additional revenue for France by requiring CFA nations to deposit initially 100 percent and, in recent years, 50 percent of their reserves in France’s Treasury, where it served as productive interest-bearing capital. Between 1945 and the introduction of the euro in 1999, French authorities devalued the CFA franc against the French franc by 99.9 percent, increasing French purchasing power against African nations and subsidizing the French way of life.

Today, the CFA zone encompasses 12 former French colonies—Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, the Republic of Congo, Senegal, and Togo—as well as newer entrants Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea. Paris also holds similar sway over Comoros’ currency through the Comorian franc. To put this in perspective, France’s monetary control extends over more than 965,000 square miles of African territory and more than 180 million people. That is an area 80 percent the size of India—larger than the European Union—and home to more than the combined populations of France and Germany.

Emmanuel Macron is the first French president born after the end of colonialism, and in many ways, he personifies this generational break through his forward-looking approach to Africa. In 2017, he famously called French colonialism “truly barbarous” and a “crime against humanity” while on a visit to Algeria. Yet, he has done little to abolish the most enduring vestige of French colonialism: Paris’s continued monetary control over 14 sub-Saharan African countries.

France created the French Colonies of Africa (CFA) franc in the wake of World War II, when it oversaw the world’s second largest colonial empire. With help from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, this exploitative system of monetary control has outlasted colonialism, which largely ended in the early 1960s, and allowed France to farm a vast African territory for strategic resources and secure lucrative export markets. Historically, the CFA system has also generated additional revenue for France by requiring CFA nations to deposit initially 100 percent and, in recent years, 50 percent of their reserves in France’s Treasury, where it served as productive interest-bearing capital. Between 1945 and the introduction of the euro in 1999, French authorities devalued the CFA franc against the French franc by 99.9 percent, increasing French purchasing power against African nations and subsidizing the French way of life.

Today, the CFA zone encompasses 12 former French colonies—Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, the Republic of Congo, Senegal, and Togo—as well as newer entrants Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea. Paris also holds similar sway over Comoros’ currency through the Comorian franc. To put this in perspective, France’s monetary control extends over more than 965,000 square miles of African territory and more than 180 million people. That is an area 80 percent the size of India—larger than the European Union—and home to more than the combined populations of France and Germany.


Macron was born in December 1977, six months after the last French colony in Africa, Djibouti, gained its independence—a fact that shapes his décomplexé (or “uninhibited”) vision of Franco-African relations. “I am from a generation that has never known a colonized Africa,” Macron declared in a historic November 2017 speech in Burkina Faso, adding “I am from a generation that does not come and tell Africa what to do.” No other French president has unreservedly admitted, denounced, and apologized for the crimes of French colonialism or so readily recognized that the future of the French language is in Africa—home to most French speakers on the planet.

Yet, in response to the resurgence of an anti-CFA franc movement in West Africa, Macron echoes traditional French paternalism. “[France] only wants to help her brothers and sisters to succeed and to help this African youth to conquer its future,” he said in a December 2019 visit to the Ivory Coast, extolling “France’s guarantee” of the currency, its “macroeconomic strength and stability,” and the endorsement of leaders of West African CFA nations, almost all of whom are authoritarian and largely viewed by their people as French puppets. And not a single CFA country is among the 10 richest countries in Africa; 11 of the 14 CFA nations are considered among the “least developed countries” in the world by the United Nations. The sub-Saharan African countries that are or were at some point part of the CFA zone also all rank at the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

As forward-looking as Macron has been in addressing France’s colonial past, he conceded just three reforms to the CFA franc in December 2019. They apply only to the eight countries in West Africa, not those in Central Africa or Comoros, where the current rules will remain in force.

First, Macron announced a plan to rename the CFA franc the “Eco” after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), slated to take effect in 2027. (ECOWAS powerhouses Nigeria and Ghana have already made clear they will not participate in protest of French influence.) Second, he announced the withdrawal of French representatives from the governance boards of CFA central banks. Third, he is currently in the process of shifting out the 50 percent reserve requirement in favor of a new arrangement, whereby countries can gain control of their reserves but France continues to be the guarantor and lender of last resort. In short, financial dependence continues. Dakar-based economist Ndongo Samba Sylla has called the measures more symbolic than transformative.

French leaders have sought to protect the CFA system by any means necessary.

These limited reforms follow the historic pattern of reluctant French decolonization or “Africanization” of the colonial system. Once French leaders realized the inevitability of decolonization in the 1950s, they initiated measures that granted independence in name but preserved the interests of French industry and businesses in practice—which depended on African markets and strategic natural resources, such as Niger’s uranium or Guinea’s bauxite. Paris retained hegemony through a series of “cooperation agreements” that preserved many features of the colonial system, such as a French military presence, to “guarantee” security. The CFA currency, for its part, was meant to “guarantee” economic stability.

Over the years, French leaders have sought to protect the CFA system by any means necessary. The French state is dependent on this arrangement to obtain strategic resources at below-market prices and, in turn, serve an export market willing to pay higher-than-market prices for French-made goods like cars and books.

In 1960, when then-Guinean nationalist leader Ahmed Sekou Touré left the CFA franc system, Paris launched Opération Persil (or “Operation Parsley”). French intelligence operatives sought to destabilize the country and topple Touré by flooding Guinea with massive quantities of counterfeit new Guinean bank notes. This led to the Guinean economy’s collapse and fueled Touré’s Stalinist paranoia, which arguably led to incessant brutal purges during the following 24 years of his rule.

On Jan. 13, 1963, then-Togolese President Sylvanus Olympio was assassinated by French-trained Togolese soldiers just days before he tried to create a Central Bank of Togo and a Togolese franc. The assassins were led by Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who then seized power and became Togo’s dictator with full French support. Eyadéma’s rule spanned five decades until his death in 2005; his son rules to this day.


One of us, Mohamed Keita, spent 15 years living in two countries in the CFA franc zone: Mali and Senegal.

My father worked as a senior manager for one of three central banks serving the CFA franc currency: the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). As a child and teenager, I thought nothing of the CFA franc; my father’s job afforded our family a relatively privileged status, enough to afford private school and vacations in the United States. But I also remember how one day in 1994, my father came home to tell my family France was devaluing the CFA franc by 50 percent. Although I didn’t understand why this was happening, I sensed the anxiety and anguish in my parents as they dreaded new hardships to come.

Yet, living in the CFA bubble made it clear no viable monetary alternative existed for CFA nations. After all, my parents always spoke bitterly about the failed experience of Mali, their homeland, when it left the CFA zone in 1962 to mint its own currency: the Malian franc. Mali’s independence leader, Modibo Keita (no relation), justified the move by citing the fact that 80 percent of Mali’s imports came from France and argued a Parisian-controlled monetary policy stifled economic growth. In response, the French government rendered the Malian franc inconvertible, and a deep economic crisis followed—ultimately forcing Keita to reverse course and seek French permission to reenter the CFA zone. Keita was overthrown in a military coup in 1968, and the French imposed two devaluations on the Malian franc as conditions for reinstatement, which did not happen until 1984.

I, Mohamed Keita, am still very much a Francophile. French is my second language, and I am passing it on to my children. I am the nephew of a Malian colonial infantryperson who took part in the Allied invasion to liberate southern France from the Nazis. Helping CFA zone citizens overcome foreign control is, in my view, not “France bashing” but an important step toward full decolonization.


So what is next for CFA countries? Macron, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund are not intent on honestly reforming the status quo. Regional leaders, such as Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara or Cameroonian President Paul Biya, are also disinterested in biting the hand that feeds them and keeps them in power.

Scholars suggest three possibilities. France could disband the CFA monetary system entirely, and the International Monetary Fund could take its place, perhaps pegging a local currency to its own special drawing rights. But few citizens would be excited about international debt bondage. A second option is a regional currency. However, as mentioned previously, France has already hijacked the Eco and scared away regional economic powerhouses Nigeria and Ghana with the threat of lingering control, stalling that plan for now. Then there is the possibility that each country creates its own central bank and currency as other former French colonies—such as Mauritania, Djibouti, Algeria, and Madagascar—have done. However, all of those countries are run by authoritarian governments, which are just as likely to abuse monetary policy as France, potentially so-called saving citizens from neocolonial dependency only to put them at the mercy of hyperinflation.

There is now also a fourth possibility, which would have been unimaginable even a few months ago. Last month, El Salvador adopted Bitcoin as legal tender, primarily to lessen the country’s high dependence on remittances and their extortionate fees, which Bitcoin-based platforms can reduce to near zero. The move takes effect Sept. 7, and Salvadoran businesses are now installing the technology to accept bitcoin payments. Meanwhile, other nations in the region are already putting forward bills that would enable a similar monetary shift.

A move to make Bitcoin legal tender in CFA countries like Senegal or Togo is unlikely to come from the top because their leaders are closely tied to the French government. But Bitcoin use in West Africa is rapidly on the rise, with millions of users everywhere from Senegal to Ghana to Nigeria. Many Africans are choosing a currency that isn’t controlled by any power, foreign or domestic; that cannot be debased overnight; and that cannot be censored. Bitcoin can be accessed by anyone regardless of nationality; it can be rendered unconfiscatable, and it can teleport anywhere on Earth instantly.

The widespread adoption of Bitcoin makes the end of the CFA system a possibility for millions of people across Africa. From Dakar, Senegal, to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, more individuals are turning to Bitcoin every day for remittances, savings, and international business. Through individual choice alone, Africans may force change from the ground up, ending one of the last vestiges of French imperialism local politicians refuse to discard and ushering in a new era of financial freedom for millions of people. It would be a great democratic moment 60 years in the making.

Mohamed Keita is a senior policy advisor with the Human Rights Foundation. Twitter: @ModKeita

Alex Gladstein is the chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation and a financial freedom advocate. Twitter: @gladstein

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