As Senegal’s Faye takes office, France watches closely 

Paris — He ran as the candidate with a platform of “rupture,” championing greater sovereignty for his homeland — including by leaving the CFA West African Franc currency union, created by France nearly a century ago.

The shock victory of new Senegalese President Bassirou Diomaye Faye has been closely followed in Paris, as questions mount on what the results mean for France’s relations with its former West African colony.

Will a Faye presidency stoke simmering anti-French sentiment, or the rising influence of other foreign powers? Will it further shrink France’s ebbing economic and military presence in West Africa — a region where Paris has already pulled its troops from coup-hit countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger?

Or — as critics suggest — does it underscore, yet again, that France’s ties with its former colonies must be rethought and reset — a process, some add, which is already well under way?

The election of anti-establishment Faye “has been a wake-up call to Western countries like France, which are now in competition with many other powers,” wrote France’s influential Le Monde newspaper. Today, Paris and others, “must learn from the consequences of the current African context, which has increasingly come to resemble a new phase in the long history of decolonization.”

More win-win

In both Paris and Dakar, the first official reactions were positive. President Emmanuel Macron’s office said the French leader called Faye and “warmly” congratulated him after his election, saying France wants to “continue and intensify” bilateral ties.

Faye maintains Senegal will remain a “certain and trustworthy ally,” calling Dakar’s partnership with Paris “correct,” but something “which must be revisited.”

“We need to win more from it,” Faye told France-Info radio in a recent interview, adding, “We’ve already said this for years, but we were unfortunately not listened to.”

The relationship between France and its former colony — once its oldest in sub-Saharan Africa — has historically been close, despite the occasional bumpy ride.

The country’s first president, writer and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor, studied in France. His second wife, Collette, was from Normandy. After leaving office, Senghor became the first Black member of the Academie Française — France’s celebrated literary body.

Until recently, too, France was Senegal’s leading economic partner, and Macron forged a good relationship with Faye’s predecessor, Macky Sall.

But like elsewhere in Francophone Africa, anti-French sentiment is rising, especially among the young. “France degage,” or “French out,” is a common slogan at demonstrations. On X, some rejoiced after reading fake news that Faye had asked France to leave the country. “Long live Senegal, free from France,” wrote one commentator.

Faye’s influential opposition ally, Ousmane Sonko, counts among the critics of France’s allegedly outsized influence in Senegal. While Sonko has softened his rhetoric in recent months, both men call for greater national sovereignty over resources like oil and fisheries.

Not everyone is bashing France, however. In Paris, Senegalese trader Mamadou, who sells berets and Eiffel Tower keychains to tourists, is happy with the status quo. “We have a stable relationship,” said Mamadou of the two countries. “Our ties go back a long way.”

Diminished presence

While France is still a key investor in Senegal — with French bakeries like Paul and supermarket chain Auchan dotting the capital Dakar — its footprint has shrunk sharply in the decades following Senegal’s 1960 independence. Other countries have moved in.

Beijing is now Dakar’s top trading partner. A Saudi firm built the capital’s new airport — which a largely Turkish-controlled company now manages. US, British and Australian companies are involved in Senegal’s oil and gas extraction. European, Turkish and Chinese industrial vessels have sucked up the fish off its shores, pummeling its artisanal fishing industry and deepening hunger and migration.

Meanwhile, non-francophone Nigeria, Angola and South Africa have become Paris’ leading trading partners in sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s easy to have a speech about Senegal’s ‘sovereignty,’ but it is difficult to take measures against a French presence that isn’t what it was at independence,” Denis Castaing, former head of France’s development agency in Senegal, wrote in France’s website.

Some commentators also doubt Faye will usher in major upheaval — at least not anytime soon.

A Faye presidency would not be “a revolution which breaks everything in its path but a much more moderate stance,” Burkina Faso’s L’Observateur Paalga newspaper wrote in an editorial.

Senegalese analyst Pape Ibrahim Kane similarly predicted it would take time for Faye, for example, to make good on promises to leave the CFA for a proposed West African currency called Eco.

“Perhaps in a year, a year and a half, we’ll have more clarity,” he told France’s RFI broadcaster.

But change could come more quickly on another front. Reports suggest Macron wants to further cut France’s already diminished military presence in West Africa, including in Senegal, where France has about 350 armed forces personnel. Calling on Paris to shutter its last two bases in Senegal might be an easy win for the new Faye government, Kane says.

“From a symbolic point of view, I think it would show how [Dakar] is reassuming Senegalese sovereignty without many consequences,” said Senegalese analyst Kane. “The French themselves are already rethinking their military presence on the continent — so it could happen very quickly.”

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