French espionage in Africa


14 | 10 | 2021


[Antoine Glaser and Thomas Hofnung, Nos chers espions en Afrique ( Paris: Fayard, 2018) 240 pag.]

The presence of soldiers and spies in African countries might seem like something of the Cold War, but it is also something very typical of our time, even in a world dominated by big digital communications. 

France is the country with the longest intelligence tradition in Western Africa. The French Secret Service-the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE)-has a strong presence in the African continent, as it is reported with a lot of details by the book Nos chers espions en Afrique (our dear spies in Africa), written by the French journalists Antoine Glaser and Thomas Hofnung. But according to these authors, the DGSE is losing its grip due to increasing competition from other foreign agencies.

From control to influence 

Most of the French intelligence networks in Africa come from the time when the colonial era collapsed. They are the legacy of Jacques Foccart, who was Secrétaire Général de l'Élysée aux affaires Africaines et Malgaches bewteen 1960 and 1974. Known as "Monsieur Afrique", Foccart had been responsible of the intelligence networks of the Free France during World War Two and he used that expertise to build networks of agents across the different new independent African countries through the French secret services.

In the early post-colonial time, the former French colonial public servants were also key to maintain France's influence, as the new governments, like the one of Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d'Ivoire, were encouraged by Foccart to take them. Another surprising element of the power of France in Africa were the thousands of French teachers that kept teaching in lycées and Universities, many of them reporting to the French Secret Service (the SDECE, that later became the DGSE). These intelligence networks were named the "Foccart réseaux". The secret services were the ones in charge to gather strategic information in these countries from the so-called "correspondents", businessmen and people from the African nations that reported to them. They also guarantee secret financing to parties and politicians in these countries that agree to support French interests.

These networks of spies guaranteed the French government of a big amount of information that it used to establish its diary in Africa, sometimes by military means. For instance, Foccart helped to build the administration of the President of Gabon Leon Mba in 1961. However, once Foccart knew by his networks that Mba could suppose a threat to French companies in Gabon he planned a coup d'état and supported the new government of the former Mba's deputy, Omar Bongo. Foccart did the same in Guinee, in Congo supporting Mobutu, and in Nigeria, where he supported the independence of the French-speaking region of Biafra. The support was mainly guaranteed through paid mercenaries, like Robert Denard. Some agents would become important political figures in some African countries, like Jean-Claude Mantion, considered the real number two in the new Central African Republic, or Paul Fontbonne in Chad. According to Glaser and Hofnung, these intelligence networks were crucial for the French military interventions in Côte d'Ivoire, Libya, and the Sahel. 

France's political and economic interests

The book cites two main political reasons for France to establish ideological networks in the region. The first was the fight against the Communism during the Cold War and the maintenance of France's superpower status by establishing its former colonies as its area of influence. By doing this France expected to maintain the status that it had lost after decolonisation. Communism was a threat of this plan, as it expected to turn the new republics to align with the Soviet Union. Also, by framing its presence as a fight against Communism France avoided that the US could also establish its own networks, at least for a while. 

The second reason was to act as the main enforcer of UN values. As it is explained in the book, Sarkozy would change that and start framing the presence of France in Africa as a fight for Human Rights and preserve the values of the UN in the region. With its presence France wanted to guarantee the support of the UN, who would have an easier time acting in Africa with the help of France and its intelligence networks. France would also try so being less involved with governments that were maintained through questionable elections like Joseph Kabila in the DRC or Idris Debry in Chad.

Another topic that is very much mentioned in the book is the connection between the French influence and the economic interests of French companies. These include mostly energy and resource extraction companies. 

The book clearly makes a connection between the architects of the intelligence networks and the leaders of strategic industries in the region. One of the closest associates of Jacques Foccart would be Pierre Guillaumat, an important political leader within the Gaullist movement and, most importantly, since 1966 CEO of Elf-Aquitaine, later merged with other companies to form Total, by 2020 the biggest oil company of France. This was because one the first objectives of the French government when establishing intelligence networks was to assure that French enterprises would be able to extract the resources from the African countries. The book explains how the French government helps companies providing them with intelligence about these countries. 

Another aspect to mention is France's control of the currency of fourteen independent countries through two currencies: The West African and the Central African CFA franc. This currency is used by 160 million people and its regulation comes from the French Treasury and the European Central Bank.

Decline of French influence

One of the main topics that Hofnung and Gleser cover in the book is the gradual decline of the French influence in the region, especially in matters that concern intelligence.

According to the authors, although the Foccart Networks are still present in modern-day Africa, new competition has emerged. China has increased its regional presence in order to reach raw materials and get business for its construction companies and has established intelligence networks for collecting information that can be used strategically. It has happened in countries within French sphere of influence and has been seen by the Elyse as a potential threat to its influence in the region.

According to the book, during the time of Foccart France could literally put and change leaders in African countries; however, now is seeming to be more difficult, with certain exceptions like Chad. France can give security or information but when leaders need economic aid then they can turn their eye to China or even the United States like Ismaïl Omar Guelleh in Djibouti. The presence of many intelligence services can make easier for leaders to maintain power as they can always turn to the information networks of other countries if their original ally, like France, abandons them. Besides French and Chinese intelligence agents, there has also been also reported in the African countries the presence of elements from Russia, the US, the UK, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Italy, Iran, Indian, Pakistan, and some Arab states, without counting agents from African services like Algeria's, Egypt's or South Africa's. However, France is still the main guarantor of military security in many countries, that with the rise of Islamic terrorism has become very necessary. 

Conflict between agencies and privatisation of the intelligence

Another reason for France losing influence in Africa is the conflict between the French different agencies. The DGSE is the main one but there are others: the DGSI (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure) and the DRM (Direction du Renseignement Militaire). With 6,500 agents and an annual budget of 700 million euros, the DGSE is the most powerful of French services. This "Franco-French wars" between agencies started to become a real problem during the Presidency of Jacques Chirac. Many operations in Africa require the collaboration of the three agencies and on many occasions conflict occurs between them, resulting in each one keeping little operational secrets from the others. This makes everything more complicated, especially considering that the DRM has its own networks working more directly with the French Army rather than with the French government. 

Beyond the difficult coordination, each agency acts with a surprising amount of independence, without a complete knowledge from the Elyse or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and without any check by the National Assembly. At the end this creates almost independent and extremely powerful entities.

There is as well a certain "privatisation of intelligence" that has been happening in Africa since the 1990s. During the era of Foccart, the French government was the sole foreign force guaranteeing security and intelligence, both to the national government as well as for companies (mainly state-owned French companies) that were established in the region. However, with time some of these agents started to stop working for government agencies and work as private advisers not only for European companies in Africa but also for African governments via security companies. A good example of this is the politician Michel Roussin, former chief of staff of the head of the DGSE, who later worked in the Ministry of Defence to finally pas to the private sector working for Belloré, one of the companies operating in Africa. Other French companies like Total also hire former intelligence agents for their operations in Africa. According to some sources the EU is behind many of these security companies to ensure the security of other European companies without the need of going to the French government.

Difficult research

A lot of the things mentioned in the book cannot be confirmed externally since Hofnung and Glaser mostly base their research on testimonies coming from a very shady environment. Nonetheless it must be recognised as a great work of research in an area where the information sources are always very scarce. 

The usage of intelligence has heavily grown since the beginning of the Cold War and has continued to grow after that, especially when hybrid warfare precisely requires a lot of intelligence to be effective. But at the same time, the old established areas of influence have been breaking down in an era of globalisation, not only by non-Western countries but also by non-state actors, like companies. Nevertheless, the legacy still persists and the strength of France in the region (precisely because of its intelligence) cannot and should not be understated.