“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” penned Benjamin Franklin, in a November 1789 letter to a French colleague. While this oft-repeated maxim has since gained international popularity, when it comes to taxes, current events reveal such certainty often does not apply to the wealthy. The European Union (EU), in an attempt to curb an estimated $680 billion in revenue losses by its member economies each year, has targeted 17 countries and warned 47 others by producing a tax haven blacklist aimed at those nations who enable tax avoidance by wealthy entities.
“We must do everything we can to keep up the pressure on all of these countries,” announced European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici upon the early December release of the list. The former French economic minister stressed, “We must not accept unfair tax competition and opacity.”
Moscovici’s statement represents a clarion call to rein in tax evaders worldwide as they bleed much-needed revenue from Western economies. However, what continues to fly under the international media radar is how prominent EU member countries like France, for the better part of a century, have unfairly bled African nations for billions in a lopsided post-colonial relationship that has largely kept these countries struggling and dependent.
“We can see a systematic level of engagement/oppression in the ways through which the French built their empire, their country and their base on the backs of resources coming from the African world,” said Dr. Emira Woods, a foreign policy expert at the Institute for Policy Studies and native Liberian who works with human rights groups Africans Rising and Africa Action.
The CFA franc — CFA being for African Financial Community and in French Communaute Financiere Africaine — is a French-issued and controlled currency used in 14 African countries, 12 being former French colonies. Through it, this “community” is beholden to the monetary policies of the European Central Bank and its executive mechanisms, the Central Bank of West African States and the Bank of Central African States. These central banks issue the currency, extend credit and hold external reserves as a result of a colonial-era agreement where community members deposit 65 percent of all foreign currency reserves in a shared reserve fund to France. By controlling the currency and credit of these member nations and generating billions in interest from their reserves, France benefits from the orchestrated economic dependency of large swaths of west and central Africa while maintaining its own post-colonial piggybank.
“Certainly the spotlight needs to be put on France when one begins to discuss the problems that the African continent is compelled to endure,” said prominent historian Gerald Horne, author of numerous books on the African continent. “Rather than pointing the finger at neocolonialism and imperialism as primary causes for Africa’s underdevelopment, the African people themselves are blamed for their underdevelopment,” said Horne, noting “this is not only a misrepresentation of reality, it is also defaming the African continent.”
Ironically, France has been honest about its own economic dependence on its former African colonies. Former French Minister Jacques Godfrain echoed a long line of high-ranking French leaders when, in 2011, he acknowledged that as “a little country with a small amount of strength, we can move a planet because [of our] relations with 15 or 20 African countries.”
Godfrain’s revealing statement goes beyond finances. While controlling national economies, foreign nations can readily manipulate and assert their influence over another country’s political and economic outcomes, control key natural resources like oil, uranium and gold, and squash potential threats to guarantee their ongoing dominance. It was a lesson learned many years prior by future French president Charles de Gaulle during France’s subjugation by Nazi Germany.
“De Gaulle created a monetary union whose functions of control were based on the model Germany had used to usurp German-occupied France,” wrote Dr. Christof Lehmann for international news journal NSNBC in 2012. “Even though the colonies have since gained independence, the system of almost absolute control over their economies” persists and “gives them a veto right at the board of each of the Central Banks. No decision can be made without their approval and France can enforce its policy by threatening to deadlock the economies unless decisions are made in compliance with French suggestions.”
“France is indebting and enslaving Africans by means of Africa’s own wealth,” continued Lehmann, citing how African reserves are deposited in a shared French account generating billions in interest “which France grants as credits to Africa at an interest rate of five to six percent or more.” He lamented the tragedy of this skewed relationship where France takes African monies and generates massive interest before loaning it back to African CFA nations to generate additional interest. “The allegory of ‘Bleeding Africa and Feeding France’ is no exaggeration,” wrote Lehmann, adding that “the cost in terms of underdevelopment and human suffering is staggering.”
Consistently, in a 1996 interview with Le Liberation, Gabon’s president Omar Bongo offered, “We are in the Franc Zone. Our operations accounts are managed by the French National Bank in Paris. Who profits from the interests that our money generates? France.”
However, Bongo and a long line of CFA leaders personally benefited from this relationship even if the citizens they ruled over did not. In many cases, by propping up African puppets with riches and lavish lifestyles, France could maintain political control over its former colonies. Still, the CFA has had its appeal since member nations gain a measure of currency stability, national security through the backing of the French military, and a steady flow of economic aid, the latter not surprising since the French are largely protecting and maintaining their own profit-generating dominions. Though several nations like Guinea managed to leave the CFA zone and institute its own currency in the post-colonial phase, its trajectory has not been far different from its West African neighbors given its shifting alliances with other foreign interests.
While acknowledging the primary role of economics, Woods clarified, “It is an economic system bolstered by military might, military presence, and also supported by political machinations and other ways the French try to control different processes within a series of countries on the African continent and around the African world.”
The last six decades are replete with examples of France’s overt, covert and thinly-veiled involvement in the post-colonial affairs of CFA nations. In 2010, the continental blog Afriqueindependance published a chart of coups occurring in Africa from 1952 to 2010. A total of 67 coups occurred in 26 African countries and, of those countries, 16 or 61.5 percent were former French colonies. In these former colonies, 45 coups occurred, representing a stunning 67.2 percent of the total. In other words, almost 7 out of 10 coups in Africa in the last 60 years took place in nations dominated by France. The blog insisted this was far from a coincidence as “the coup d’etat constitutes a mode of political regulation in Africa, whose true instigators are the Western imperialist states” and, at the “top of the list of foreign sponsors of African coups, there is undeniably France.”
While decades of African resistance efforts to French post-colonial domination have been consistently thwarted in this manner, there are those who feel this troubled relationship, both economically and politically, needs to change for the sake of both sides. They point to how France’s inequitable CFA policies are better left in the 20th century given globalism and how the lack of a viable continental middle class and integrated western African economies ultimately hurts French and European economies and commerce. Former French president Jacques Chiraq has spoken to the need to stop usurping Africa and the catastrophic consequences of not changing these dynamics, while French politician Jean Luc Mélenon has heavily criticized the linking of western African economies to those of the European Union and demanded that France abandon its veto right at the African Central Banks. Most recently, current French president Emmanuel Macron has at least suggested a new course for French relations in Africa.
It is much needed given the tragic irony, depicted Horne, of young men from CFA countries who risk their lives daily to make their way to European countries like France because their home countries have been largely devastated and destabilized by years of post-colonial manipulation. If they make it there alive, he noted, they become “low-wage workers and then fodder for political campaigns” of right wing leaders decrying liberal immigration policies.
“The present setup of French neocolonialism and imperialism exploiting Africa is unsustainable,” insisted Horne. “It must be changed immediately, if not sooner.”
Woods believes such change is underway. “The Africa Social Forum and the Senegal Social Forum have been places of organizing and mobilizing civil society in opposition to the franc,” she reported, noting “it has ignited a new generation of young, dynamic, social movement leaders.” Woods pointed to the 2012 youth-led rejection of longtime Senegalese president Aboulaye Wade and ongoing organizing in Mauritania and Mali. And in September, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in numerous French-speaking countries, including Gabon, Cameroon, Benin, Mali and Senegal to demand the abolition of the CFA currency for how it underdevelops and impoverishes African nations. These protests were prompted by Senegalese activist Kemi Séba’s burning of a 5,000 CFA note, equivalent to $9.20, a month earlier.
“What we will have to watch is how those governments respond and the extent to which they actually take heed to the voices of this social movement that are demanding a structural and systemic change within the economy,” said Woods, citing how conversations about the adoption of a self-generated common currency have been ongoing at the government level within the African Union and within ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States).
“I think there is new momentum to these longstanding struggles,” continued Woods. “And that gives me a sense of hope.”