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France's increasing unpopularity in Niger

  Jerry Franklin

France's increasing unpopularity in Niger
The popular hostility towards France has caused a significant decline in the post-coup relations between France and Niger. The junta has capitalised on the anti-French sentiments to gain public support for its action.
Jerry Franklin

On 10 October, France began the withdrawal of its troops from Niger following the Niger junta’s requests. The junta asked the French 1,500 troops deployed in the country to leave after worsened ties between the two actors following the coup. The ties worsened after France refused to recognise the coup government and imposed sanctions. 

Background to France-Niger Relations
Since Niger gained independence from France in 1960, it has maintained a strong relationship with its former coloniser. According to the World Bank Report 2021, 42.9 per cent of Niger's population has been living under the poverty line; 83 per cent of people live in rural regions and 20 per cent of people cannot afford daily necessities, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. France has been providing significant aid to Niger. It offered a development package worth EUR 97 million (USD 106 million) IN 2021 through the French Development Agency. 

Additionally, around 1500 French soldiers have been stationed in Niger, training Nigerien soldiers and undertaking joint operations to combat the Islamist insurgency. France and the US relied heavily on Niger in its fight against Islamist insurgency in the larger Sahel region. Before the coup, Niger was seen as the West's last and most important ally in combating Islamist insurgency after Mali and Burkina Faso severed ties with France post-coup in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

Niger stands as the fourth-largest producer of uranium in the world and a significant supplier of gold and oil to West Africa. A study from World Nuclear News says that Niger provides around five per cent of the uranium used worldwide; a resource critical to France’s nuclear energy. Approximately, 70 per cent of France's energy demands are met by nuclear energy. Niger supplies 15-17 per cent of the Uranium requirements in France. Orano, formerly known as Areva, a French nuclear fuel cycle firm, has been mining uranium for over 40 years from Niger. In 2021, the European Atomic Energy Community's Supply Agency reported that Niger was the EU's primary supplier of uranium, followed by Kazakhstan and Russia.

Post-coup Niger-France relations
Popular hostility towards France has increased since the coup. Following President Mohamed Bazoum's overthrow by the military in July, nearly 30,000 people assembled in a stadium in Central Niamey, where they chanted anti-French slogans such as “down with France” and burned French flags. Shortly after seizing power, the junta severed military ties with France. French President Emmanuel Macron strongly opposed the coup and suspended the aid to Niger. Macron urged the junta to immediately restore constitutional order and release President Bazoum, who had been under house arrest for high treason. Since July, the junta has been demanding the immediate withdrawal of 1,500 French soldiers stationed in Niger and has urged French Ambassador Sylvian Itte to return to France without delay. 

Additionally, there have been attacks on the French embassy and a series of protests outside the French military base in Niger. As a result, the French ambassador, Sylvian Itte, returned to France and French President Emmanuel Macron ordered the evacuation of French soldiers from Niger. Niger has formed new alliances with military juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso which were the former colonies of France.

Factors contributed to the decline of France's influence in Niger
First, anti-French sentiment. The anti-French sentiment stems from French military presence for over a decade in Niger. Following the takeover, Niger's military authorities have leveraged the country's anti-French sentiment to foster a sense of national unity and pride. They have cited the withdrawal as a positive step towards the country's sovereignty. To combat Islamist insurgents, France and the UN provided military assistance to countries throughout the Sahel since 2014. France and the UN deployed thousands of soldiers in the Sahel region as a part of Operation Barkhane to combat the jihadist insurgency. However, despite their efforts, the insurgency has continued to escalate. As of November 2022, the operation has come to an end without fully achieving its objectives. The junta leaders in Niger took control of the government claiming to address the issue of insurgency and ensure the protection of their people. They claimed that the country needed a military government to initiate constructive measures and bring about positive changes in their country.

Second, neo-colonialism. France holds significant economic influence in Niger. France’s West African currency, CFA Franc, is Niger’s national currency. The currency is pegged to the Euro and requires Niger to deposit half of its reserves with the French treasury. CFA Franc is often criticised as a neo-colonial tool that hinders economic development in West African countries.

Third, unchecked extraction of Uranium. France has made huge profits from Uranium extraction in Niger, however, the people of Niger have not benefited from this extraction. Niger has exclusive access to uranium, however, it boosts the country's GDP only by around five per cent. Besides, there are also health and environmental issues raised in three of the uranium mines controlled by France. In 2021, one of the three mines was closed, leaving the town of Arlit in northern Niger with an estimated 20 million tonnes of radioactive waste. This has raised concerns about the safety and well-being of the locals, as well as the impact on the environment. The sanctions imposed by Nigeria after the coup have further worsened the situation. Multinational corporations that mine uranium often engage in secretive negotiations and covert agreements, lacking transparency and fairness, which benefit the companies more than the people of Niger. The careless exploitation of natural resources paved the way for increasing anti-French sentiments.

What does it mean?
The unchecked extraction of natural resources coupled with external influence and interference led to the military and people turning against France. The people of Niger demand full control of their resources and sovereignty. France's withdrawal from Niger would have a significant impact on the country's foreign relations. Additionally, the counterterrorism activities would be severely hindered by France's withdrawal from Niger. Beyond security concerns, Niger has significant challenges such as high rates of young unemployment and economic crises. The Sahel region's geopolitics is undergoing major transformations. The Sahel actors seek to expand beyond French control and align with countries like China and Russia. 

About the author

Jerry Franklin is a Postgraduate Scholar at Madras Christian College, Chennai.

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