What is French Security Policy in Africa Today? An interview with Benedikt Erforth


Benedikt Erforth is the author of the recently published book entitled Contemporary French Security Policy in Africa. On Ideas and Wars. Published with the Sciences Po series in International Relations and Political Economy, Palgrave Macmillan, this book uncovers individual and collective motivations that drive French foreign and security policy in Africa. A researcher at the German Development Institute, Benedikt Erforth covers French policy-making in Africa as well as European development finance. He has accepted to answer our questions.


What is the main thesis of your book?

The book seeks to draw attention to the importance of decision-making processes over outcomes when analyzing French security policy-making in Africa. Concretely, the book investigates why the Hollande administration (May 2012-May 2017) launched two military operations – Operation Serval in Mali and Operation Sangaris in the Central African Republic – within the first twelve months of assuming office and despite formal commitments to the contrary. In response to this question, my book elaborates on threat perceptions and points to France’s identity as a power of influence in this world as a core explanatory variable for intervention.

France’s most recent interventions in Africa make it clear that the country’s present interventionism is no longer merely the result of neo-colonial path-dependencies or a means to satisfy material interests; both aspects being notorious for having dictated French security policy in Africa in the past. Instead, different fractions in the French state come to opposite conclusions when assessing threats in France’s traditional sphere of influence. In the specific case of Operation Serval in Mali, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense temporarily advocated diametrically opposed solutions to the crisis in Mali, the former calling for an intervention, which the latter opposed. Even individual actors were torn between their commitment to multilateralism and their belief that France needed to act. Interventions, in other words, result from struggles over competing sets of ideas. The purpose of this book is to identify the most salient of these ideas and to trace their emergence as dominant narratives in the French discourse, guiding policy-makers’ perceptions and eventually explaining specific decisions.

What methodology did you adopt during this research?

This research aims at explaining French interventionism by drawing on actors’ subjective perceptions of reality. To do so, the book adopts an actor-centric constructivist ontology. It combines both institutional and ideational approaches to identify the emergence of ideas and to trace their diffusion within the French foreign policy apparatus. By investigating ideational variables through the lenses of the policy-makers themselves, this book seeks to unravel the hidden dynamics of decision-making. This micro-foundational approach is rooted in discourse analysis and pays particular attention to the processes and people that constitute the state.

Can you briefly remind us what Operations Serval and Sangaris were meant for—and why you decided to focus on these two cases?

Operations Serval and Sangaris—different in their objectives—are united by the fact that both of them were launched by an administration that defended a strictly non-interventionist foreign policy.

Operation Serval, the largest French foreign military intervention since the end of the Algerian War, was designed as the beginning of counter-terrorism operation to help Mali safeguard its sovereignty by eradicating criminals, terrorist groups, and rebels that had launched a joint offensive toward the country’s South. The mission later gave rise to a successor operation, code-named Barkhane, and led to the establishment of the G5-Sahel joint force.

Operation Sangaris, conceptualized as a peacekeeping operation, saw French troops first intervene in Bangui to oppose the sectarian violence that had afflicted the Central African Republic.

Given their temporal proximity—both missions were launched in 2013—the two operations were subjected to similar decision-making practices and, taken together, are illustrative of contemporary French security policy in Africa.

About Operation Serval (Mali, 2013). How and why – in the course of the decision-making process – did the problem solution shift from “supporting a multilateral peacekeeping force” to a “unilateral intervention in the name of the international community”?

Several reasons explain this shift in the French position. The initial support for a multilateral peacekeeping force was informed by the narrative of “African solutions to African problems” and the non-interventionist foreign policy stance the Hollande administration had taken when assuming office. As the threat perception changed, provoking an increased sense of urgency, and a multilateral solution remaining out of sight, the Hollande administration forsook its non-interventionist stance in order to address the problem swiftly, thus catering to France’s identity as a power of influence in the international system.

What leeway does the French president have in terms of decision-making when it comes to military intervention in Africa? Is there a specific French security policy in Africa that results from past colonial times?

Put simply, the final decision on whether or not the French military is going to intervene in another country is incumbent on the president alone. As commander-in-chief, the president can make such a decision without the authorization of any other constitutional body (since the Constitutional reform in 2008, certain a posteriori safeguards have been put in place). Yet, even in such a hierarchical system where the power to launch military operations is invested in one person, decisions tend to be the products of the interactions of multiple actors.

French security policy in Africa to this day remains under the influence of the colonial past. However, one should not understand the colonial past and present action as standing in a causal relationship to one another. France’s colonial history constitutes one among many elements of the current political and cultural environment within which present-day actors make decisions. It is thus not surprising that the colonial past is referred to both as the reason for non-intervention and the justification for intervention.

Interview by Miriam Perier, CERI.

Author bibliography:

- “When power meets perception: France’s fight against terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel”, in Roberto Belloni, Vincent Della Sala and Paul Viotti (eds.), Fear and uncertainty in Europe: the return to realism? Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 109-129, 2018.

- “Mental maps and foreign policy decision-making: Eurafrique and the French military intervention in Mali”, European Review of International Studies 3 (2), 2016, pp. 38-57.

- “Wenn Venusianer in den Krieg ziehen: Europa im französischen Interventionsdiskurs”,
in Laure Ognois, Karl-Peter Sommermann, Fabrice Larat (eds.), Theorie und Praxis der Deutsch-Französischen Zusammenarbeit in Verwaltung und Wissenschaft seit dem Élysée-Vertrag , Speyer: Deutsche Univ. für Verwaltungswissenschaften Speyer (Speyerer Arbeitshefte 217), 2015, pp. 109-128.

- “No sign of marginality: Africa’s international relations in the 21st century”, Millennium – Journal of International Relations 42 (3), 2014, pp. 927-935.

Watch a video of the author presenting his book here

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