The Still Exceptional Empires: Neo-Imperialism, Franco-American Style

Everyone has heard, ad nauseam, about the "Special Relationship” between the United States and Britain. Accordingly, the few Americans who dare identify their country as an empire – past or present – tend to analogize with the British model. While the similarities between Washington and London-style imperialism are manifold – along with the distinct differences – in other important ways, the more appropriate parallel is with France. For the French, unlike the Brits (for the most part), and like modern Americans (in a more indirect way), imagined their colonial subjects as vital, moldable constituents (if rarely citizens) of a grand francophone project for good.

I know, I know, the French and Americans can’t stand each other, right? Well, sure, theirs has been a contentious relationship for centuries – politically, culturally, you name it. True enough, but lest we forget that the U.S. formed in opposition to British Empire, and – though rarely mentioned in the dominant memories of American Revolutionary triumphalism – the colonists’ military victory would’ve been far more difficult (if not impossible) without French intervention on their behalf.

No doubt, the relationship between the US and its first, and longest, ally has been filled with ups and downs: one thinks of the Quasi-War (1798), FDR-Charles De Gaulle world war drama, Paris’ semi-“withdrawal” from NATO (1966), and, of course, the Iraq War dispute-"freedom fries” charade (2003), for starters. Still, in key ways, I’d submit that it is precisely because the French and American models of governance and global policy have so much in common that they – like rival siblings – so often squabble.

Peas in an Exceptional Pod of Delusion

While all historical analogizing must proceed cautiously – and with recognition of the limits of deduction – the broad similarities are staggering. It is the very grandiose idealism – and consequent universalism – in the wake of their inextricably connected revolutions, that has set the French and American hegemons (and empires) apart. While the American variety has tended more towards (at least an aspirational) multiculturalism than that of the French, both post-revolutionary nations have been certain of – and applied – the necessary and proper exportability of their universally "positive" cultural-political systems.

Indeed, in spite of their rather different (theoretical) approaches to internal immigrants, with some far-right wing exceptions, to be French or American – rather uniquely – has been as much idea as nationality. There have, of course, been both positive and negative applications inherent to this notion. One common output has been a common dedication to the nebulous canard of national "greatness." Indeed, Donald Trump – and Ronald Reagan before him – can be said to have channeled none other than Charles De Gaulle, who wrote in his war memoirs, way back in 1954, that "France cannot be France without greatness."

Consequently, by extension, there have been (necessarily) tragic consequences for the millions of victims of an imperialism that assumes not only metropole superiority, but that inside every Algerian (or Afghan) is a Frenchman (or American) waiting to be unzipped. Such is the logical conclusion of exceptionalism – that most treacherous of all imperial brands.

There are more specific Franco-American likenesses worth noting as well. Despite the cozy rhetoric of US multiculturalism and France’s assimilation, both states ultimately adhere to a notion that national values – however vaguely framed – heat their respective citizen melting pots. And both fill their prisons with the detritus of that program’s historical failures. By now, the reality, and broad contours of, America’s world-record mass incarceration – particularly of black and brown bodies are widely reported. Less well known, but of a piece with the US model, is that by 2003, France’s Muslims accounted for seven percent of the population but 70 to 80 percent of its prisoners.

Furthermore, both have lengthy records of post-colonial and neo-imperial adventurism across far-flung swathes of the the globe. In fact, American and French wars have been the West’s bloodiest since 1945, and also often complimentary – whereby, for example, Washington quite literally took up Paris’ mantle in Vietnam. Furthermore, even today, France – though it pales in comparison to America’s veritable "empire of bases" – maintains perhaps the world’s second largest network of overseas military footholds. That deployment and intervention bonanza has all "blown back" at the French and American homelands, as both have been targeted – recently at two of the highest Western rates – by transnational (or foreign-influenced) "terrorists" from the very regions where they most often militarily intervene.

Joint Exhibit Africa

Lastly, and most relevant to the current moment, both Paris and Washington have had a tragic tortured relationship with – and become the favorite targets of – the more violent flavors of political Islam. Of late, for the Americans, and more longstanding for the French, that has particularly been the case in Africa. The truth is there are only two countries which station – and unleash – significant numbers of troops in Africa today: France and the United States.

The post-colonial pervasiveness of the French presence in Africa was itself exceptional – at least until the United States truly got in the game in a more overt post-9/11 way. As late as 1990, France had troops stationed in a remarkable 22 African countries. Even the once great British Empire’s postcolonial role paled in comparison. Furthermore, in a tactic the U.S. would later – and continue to – make its own, France signed military defense pacts with 27 African states during the period 1961-92, including with three former British, and a few Belgian, colonies. Paris also spearheaded three further tactics common to Washington throughout and beyond the decolonization and Cold War eras: fomenting coups, empowering dictators, and “dancing” with heinous (sometimes genocidal) monsters. In several repulsive cases, some combination of all three were waged as joint Franco-American exercises.

Paris and Washington "Behind the Scenes"

Since the end of the Second World War, when a defeated France sought to regain the physical space, and glory, of its empire – most of which was in Africa – it unleashed its external intelligence service, then known as the SDECE, first to stifle colonial nationalism, and then, begrudgingly, to sustain real power over the newly independent states. Whereas the equivalent US CIA spent the Cold War working behind the scenes to counter even the whiff of Soviet influence, the SDECE was more concerned with stifling any true hints of economic or political autonomy in its former domains. Nonetheless, not always, but more often than not, Paris’ and Washington’s goals were symbiotic.

In the period after the "Year of Africa” – when 14 French (and 17 total) colonies gained independence – the SDECE (after 1981 known as the DGSE) instigated several coups, and been implicated in more than a few presidential assassinations. In more farcical cases – take the Central African Republic (CAR) – the SDECE even planned coups against leaders it had previously "couped" into office in the first place. The losers were always the common people, mind you, and it should thus come as little surprise that France was drawn back into the CAR over this past decade in response to spiraling religious and ethnic conflict. Naturally, the CIA played the same game all over the continent – toppling a few governments of its own and planning to assassinate prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of the Congo – but for the most part, Paris guarded its "special," depraved, role in Francophone West and Central Africa.

During the Cold War, and – albeit with some different motives – ever since, Franco-American intel and diplomatic services have gleefully backed any strongman willing to support Western goals or oppose the West’s (perceived) external enemies. The outcomes have repeatedly been tragic. Both Washington and Paris helped install and then backed Zaire’s (Congo’s) brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s vicious 35 year reign – the French to the bitter end, even after the US cut him lose after he’d outlived his Cold War usefulness. Paris even ran one final covert operation – which included three fighter aircraft and European mercenaries – in an unsuccessful attempt to stem the rebel tide in 1997. Previously, France installed and/or backed dictators who banned political parties, and tortured or murdered opponents in Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and the Central African Republic, among others.

In the particularly odious case of Chad, Paris and Washington alternately worked at cross or joint purposes to back one authoritarian thug after another. Both the SDECE and CIA funneled cash and weapons to a slew of leaders who exploited and widened ethnic and religious (Muslim north vs. Christian and animist south) conflicts and waged war on their own people. Much of this unfolded in the name of a lengthy proxy war with Libya’s Ghadafi regime – which France would take a leading role in toppling along with the US in 2011 – that ultimately destabilized the entire North African region. The unintended perils of backing military strongmen was on stark display again recently when a U.S.-trained captain led a 2012 coup in Mali which drew both American and French troops back into a prolonged indecisive intervention.

The rarely recounted record of French support for African monsters – usually vicious rebel groups – is exceptionally hideous. For starters, Paris backed Biafran separatists in Nigeria’s bloody civil war (1967-70) with 350 tons of weapons, and was the prime backer of the Rwandan Hutu regime – and its later rebel manifestations in the extended Congo civil wars (1996-2003) – that perpetrated the worst genocide (1994) since the Nazi Holocaust. If the US didn’t always side with France in these cases, it scantly opposed the macabre missions.

The Franco-American (Exceptionalist) Forever War Curse

In Africa, both France’s (since 1960) and America’s (after 2001) foreign policy has been veritably defined by hyper-interventionism, and low-intensity forever wars. The French have militarily intervened no less than 50 times – in at least 13 countries – since official decolonization. It has waged its own lengthy or seemingly forever wars in Chad (1968-75, 77-80 83-84), Ivory Coast (2002-present), and Mali. (2013-present) In Chad, the US has recently taken the baton from France and continues to bolster a regime ranked by Transparency International in 2010 as the sixth most corrupt on earth.

Indeed, today the French and American militaries are engaged in a joint adventure chasing Islamist "terror" ghosts across Francophone West and Central Africa. According to AFRICOM’s own internal documents, the US military now has "enduring" "footprints" in six, and "non-enduring" presence in four, former French colonies in the region. Taking that incestuous overlap a step further, Washington and Paris are together simultaneously engaged in active operations in four of those countries, and jointly station troops in at least two others. Britain, by contrast, has troops in only four African countries in any abiding sense, and is far less active in combat. While hardly any Americans – and to a lesser extent Frenchmen – can locate, or in certain cases pronounce, Djibouti, Gabon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Chad, Tunisia, Mali, or Cameroon, the stark fact is that both countries are meddling, and often at war, in each of those distant locales.

American and French soldiers, alike, continue to die in these, at best, tangential hot spots in the name of domestic populations that don’t give a damn and hardly take any notice. In Africa, at least (though not the Middle East), French military losses have been even higher than American casualties. Since 2013, 30 French troops have died in Mali alone. For all that cost in French blood and treasure – more than $750 million annually – the Sahel is even today “slipping out of control.” The same could be said of the American investment – ample billions spent and thousands of troops extensively deployed in some 15 countries as of 2019 – in Africa since 9/11.

The result of all this has been a joint Franco-American counter-productivity crisis both for the region and homeland security. The blowback synergy is perhaps best illustrated in the linked Libyan-Mali debacle, especially since Paris and Washington (along with London) shamelessly masked an outright (Ghadafi) regime change in Tripoli under the guise of the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept.

From 2007-08, US special forces inserted themselves and assisted the Malian government in its decidedly local ethnic fight with Tuareg separatists in the country’s north. Simultaneously, US trained and backed forces in nearby Niger committed atrocities against fellow Tuareg civilians – which only added to their ethnic grievances. Then, that temporarily tamped-down insurgency exploded when it was bolstered in 2012 by fighters and weapons which flooded south from the chaos induced by NATO’s 2011 regime change war in Libya. A year later, the French army was back in its former colony. They’ve yet to leave.

So, essentially, France – through its earlier colonial divide and rule policies – and the US, by militarily meddling and choosing sides in local matters (and catalyzing instability in Libya), created the Tuareg "problem" in Mali (and Niger) that both Western powers then intervened in, and are still trying, to solve.

Taking stock of this recent U.S.-backed Francophone African history repeated as farce, one is reminded of the rejoinder of a long dead French Algerian settler philosopher: "Each act of repression…each act of police torture…has deepened the despair and violence of those subjected…[and] in this way…given birth to terrorists who in turn have given birth to more police." Or, one might add in the contemporary African context: more French and American soldiers.

The Questions We (Both) Dare Not Ask

In another absurd commonality, the French and Americans have come to uncritically accept the inevitability of interminable warfare in Africa without asking why. Neither Paris nor Washington has much bothered to self-pose the salient question at hand: Why has violent Islamism exploded in Africa (or the Mideast, for that matter); and why now? It certainly can’t be as simple as the Bush-era trope: "They hate us for our freedoms."

If that were the case, one would expect the jihadi wave sooner, since, after all, French and American democracy – such as it is – is far older than the post-colonial, or post-9/11 eras. See, but there’s the rub: exceptional entities don’t trouble themselves with such questions; that sort of doubt or reflection wouldn’t occur to a universalist policymaker in Paris or Washington.

Naturally, if French or American leaders had lowered themselves to such base (you know, human) levels, and even deigned to touch a toe in some self-awareness waters, a few inconvenient causation explanations might ripple outward. Like that, perhaps, the spread of Islamist "terror" has deep roots in the phenomena of colonization, decolonization, neo-colonialism and global-financial debt-imperialism. And that there is a proven counterproductive relationship between the level of foreign troop deployments and overall violence in Africa – I.e. more French Foreign Legionnaires, and more (disturbingly similar) American "Praetorians" of the special operations command, has only sent regional jihadism skyrocketing.

Finally, there’s the minor matter that the "Washington consensus” response – through influence over IMF and World Bank policies – to the post-1973 oil shocks and free-fall of global commodity prices, didn’t (and wasn’t designed) to stop the number of Global Southerners living on less than a dollar a day rising from 70 to 290 million by 1998. In the face of such poverty, locals can be forgiven for their sneaking suspicion that both the Declarations of Independence, and of the Rights of Man, offer rather paltry answers. Now, whether the West, however constructed, bears all the blame for that might be debatable; but through African eyes, what’s certain is the recent infusion of Franco-American troops and corporations is not seen as a net positive for the people. Jihadis may be monsters – and we must admit they often are – but at least they are African (or Arab) monsters.

To distant, exceptionalist ears in the comfort of the White House (or the Élysée Palace), such sentiments seem resoundingly blasphemous. The cultural and political universalism of American or French "values" – even if neither society ever manages to internally agree about what those are – seem a given. To reject Washingtonian or Parisian liberty largesse is seen as almost proof-positive that intransigent Africans were communists – or now "terrorists" – after all. Furthermore, the unsophisticated locals must’ve been put up to it by "real" enemies: the Soviets (pre-1991), or today, obviously the Chinese. According to this prevailing logic, more’s the reason to flood the region with ample troops…and around and around we go.

Passing the Torch?

Today, and quite historically, both the French and Americans simplify a gray, complex world to their own – and global peoples’ – detriment. Elizabeth Schmidt’s two recent exhaustive studies of foreign interventions in Africa – during and since the Cold War – concluded that such actions "tended to exacerbate rather than alleviate African conflicts." Consider that a scholarly understatement. In the case of exponentially increased US military involvement since the founding of AFRICOM, credible recent analyses demonstrate how strikingly counterproductive such missions have been on the continent.

When it comes to the discrete – and often joint – French and American interventions in Africa these days, sequence and timing matter. Until 2007, the generally limited US military actions on the continent fell under the responsibility of United States European Command (EUCOM) – which in addition to countering the Russian Bear, had jurisdiction over 43 (what were seen as) backwater sub-Saharan African countries. When it came to actual troop "boots-on-the-ground," France was still the military meddler extraordinaire. All that changed, slowly after 9/11, and with immediacy when President Bush announced the creation of the Pentagon’s new Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007.

This was the pivotal moment, a changing of the economic and military neo-imperial guard of sorts. It is unlikely coincidental that the permanent US military presence became official at almost precisely the tipping point moment (2008) when China eclipsed France as Africa’s largest trading partner. Indeed, the ostensible "threat" of the Chinese Dragon – despite it still having just one base there – as much as "terrorism," has easily replaced the convenient canard of Soviet infusion as the justification for perpetual US military intervention in Africa. In the futile and inessential attempt to "defeat" Islamist jihadism and exclude China, France is now the junior – but essential, given its existing local "knowledge" and neocolonial relationships – partner on the continent.

With respect to Paris’ incessant and indecisive warfare – and ineffective strategy – in Africa, Hannah Armstrong, of the International Crisis Group, lamented that "In the same way that French reality TV and pop music is 15 years behind the US, French counterterrorism mimics US counterterrorism of 15 years ago." That may be strictly accurate with respect to the recent failures in the Sahel that she analyzed – but widen the lens a bit, and it becomes clear Armstrong has it backwards. Historically, since 1960, the French have tried it all before; Uncle Sam was often behind (or backing) them, then (as in Vietnam) willingly took the torch, and now fails where Paris already has.

In Africa, given that most of the current fighting is in the Francophone sphere upon which Paris – uniquely among former European imperialists – has maintained an historic politico-military-economic post-colonial grip, it is worth asking just who is using who in the relationship.

In other words, qui (really) bono?

Author’s Note: As some readers may have noticed, I have (accidentally) embarked on a sort of informal empire-analogy series, with a particularly African-inflection. In case you’ve missed them, check out the links below to the previous articles (in a variety of outlets) on contemporary American connections to past and present empires:

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen