The emergence of new worthy competitive actors has opened space for North African countries to relinquish Paris and leverage new partners.
French influence is eroding over the North African region. Since the 19th century, French colonisation had culminated in a monopolised sphere of influence in North Africa. The region remained highly dependent on Paris economically, culturally and strategically after World War II, but the newly independent states marked prudent relations with Paris until 2000.
France's attempts at maintaining deep relations have proved futile. Despite Paris' attempts at appeasement, French colonisation and misbehaviour towards the region still weigh heavily in relations between the countries.
Yet, it is not French colonisation and ineffective policy alone behind the decoupling of North African states and France. Although relations have had their ups and downs, countries in the region maintained bilateral ties. What is remarkable is that France never witnessed a backlash from the region prior to 2000.
However, in the past two decades, North African states have been sending a different message to France. Algiers recently closed its airspace to the French military and recalled its ambassador to France due to Macron's misbehaviour; Rabat shifted its strategic ties to find a new role within the Atlantic Association with the United Kingdom and the US; Tripoli has exposed France's blatant involvement in Libya; Tunis shifted to have US economic, financial and security support.
How can one account for eroding ties between France and North African states?
Global geopolitical shift
The US' strategy amid the unipolar system marked Washington's geopolitical decline. After 1990, the US' strategy of globalisation, modernisation and liberalism (free market) created a huge gap in the existing world order. It gave new actors — mainly Russia and China — the momentum to ascend the system and challenge the US in different spheres.
Post 9/11, the US' strategy of fighting terrorism through AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) undermined the French strategic influence. Some of these countries swerved away from French strategic dependency as they worked with the US in its missions.
The French strategy focusing on the fight against terrorism at the expense of its economic strategy has also opened the space for regional powers to build economic ties with North Africa.
As a global actor, China has intensified its economic and strategic ties with North Africa in the last two decades. Besides strategic relations with some countries, China's economic ambition could bring all North African states to join Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative; North African countries have stepped forward to diversify their trade and investment.
Unlike China, Russia has maintained its stable political, economic and strategic ties with Algeria alone. Russia's current influence in Libya is quite different from that of the Gaddafi era, and the political resolution in the country will determine Moscow's future relations with Tripoli. Tunisia has stable economic ties with Russia, but strategic links are far off, and Morocco is already in a critical diplomatic crisis.
At the regional level, Turkey has allowed North African states to leverage new economic, political and strategic ties. As a Mediterranean country, Turkey's ascendency has also offered a significant alternative to North African states. Yet, despite its strong relations with Libya, Ankara's strategic ties in the region are not the same level as Russia, France and the US; nor are its trade ties as strong as China's.
Paradoxically, although Russia and China are the major competitors to any power in North Africa, France is most troubled by Turkish involvement.
In addition to access to a vast market, strong military and energy relations between Ankara and African capitals also means a potential change in Mediterranean geopolitics in the long term — in Ankara's favour.
The Turkish-Libyan EEZ agreement puts French influence in the Mediterranean at risk. Economically, apart from the Turkish-African trade exchange, which was $25 billion dollars in 2020, Ankara has signed partnership agreements with Tunisia and a Free Trade Agreement with Morocco. Ankara has signed seven cooperation agreements in different fields (construction, textile, energy, and others) with Algeria. Additionally, Turkish non-hydrocarbon investments in Algeria have outperformed French ones.
Turkey struck a strategic agreement with Algeria in 2003. In 2017, Tunisia signed a memorandum of understanding with Ankara in the field of military training. Turkish support to the UN-recognised government with drones has stood in Haftar's way in Libya, and recently Morocco is set to acquire Turkish drones.
Finally, French ties with North Africa are getting worse amid the rise of new rivals. It can be expected that France will revise its ineffective policies, but it will be difficult for Paris to resume its former influence over the region.
North Africa should work to overcome the French influence by leveraging new and existing partners and building deep strategic, economic and cultural ties with cooperative and deserving countries that want to take part in the development of Africa. States should consider their national interests and build ties with partners accordingly.
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