Home Finance The Year of Protests at Home and Abroad Exposes France’s Deep Economic Vulnerabilities

The Year of Protests at Home and Abroad Exposes France’s Deep Economic Vulnerabilities

by internationalbanker

By Nicholas Larsen, International Banker


I am here to request the departure of the French forces,” protestor Salamatou Hima told Reuters on August 11 at one of the many rallies that emerged in Niger in the aftermath of the coup d’état executed on July 26 against President Mohamed Bazoum, when he was detained by the presidential guard in the country’s capital city, Niamey. “We are free, and we have the right to demand what is beneficial for our country.” Hima was one of possibly hundreds of thousands of protestors who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand the end of France’s imposing joint military, political and economic presence in the impoverished West African country. As such, these events in Niger mark yet another uprising in a year littered with mass mobilisations that have broken out against the French state and its economic model, both at home and abroad in its current and former colonies.   

The coup in Niger is the fourth in the Western African Sahel region, having followed similar actions taken over the last three years by the armed forces of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. In each instance, the military officers involved have expressed distinct consternation over the continued presence of French (and, to a lesser extent, US) troops in their respective countries and also lamented the near-continuous economic crises faced by all four respective economies.

Indeed, a catastrophic combination of a long-running climate-induced degradation of Niger’s land; a sharp rise in extremist militancy in the region over the last decade or so; the piling on of French and US troops, military bases and operations in the country with little transparency or accountability; a marked expansion of smuggling networks of everything from guns and drugs to human beings; and the continued exploitation by Western multinationals of Niger’s natural resources—particularly uranium and gold—without the local population reaping any material economic benefits has brought Niger to a state of desperation that underpins much of the military’s recent actions.

And it is France’s activities in the country that the many thousands of protestors squarely blame for this desperation. On the economic front, France’s brazen extraction of natural resources—particularly the country’s second-most valuable export, uranium—has prompted widespread outrage from Nigeriens. “We have uranium, diamonds, gold, oil, and we live like slaves? We don’t need the French to keep us safe,” one protestor was reported as saying, while another described the French military as “the terrorists who are killing us, who are looting us today!”

Studies have estimated that Niger accounts for between 15 percent and 17 percent of the uranium used to generate electricity in France, while an Oxfam report found that one in every three lightbulbs in France is powered by Niger’s uranium, regarded as the highest quality of uranium found anywhere in the world. And although reports remain unconfirmed that the new coup government has banned uranium exports to France in recent weeks, it could soon become a reality as the military junta expedites the departure of French personnel from Niger. The new regime also reportedly plans to prosecute President Bazoum for “high treason” and undermining state security. “Crimes for high treason [are] really what he deserves because this man betrayed Niger by stealing all of Niger’s resources,” Niamey protestor Assan Zakite told the Associated Press in mid-August.

“The ‘corruption’ that is talked about in Niger is not about petty bribes by government officials, but about an entire structure—developed during French colonial rule—that prevents Niger from establishing sovereignty over its raw materials and over its development,” author and historian Vijay Prashad and political analyst Kambale Musavuli wrote in a piece for international news outlet Peoples Dispatch. “At the heart of the ‘corruption’ is the so-called ‘joint venture’ between Niger and France called Société des Mines de l’Aïr (Somaïr), which owns and operates the uranium industry in the country. Strikingly, 85 percent of Somaïr is owned by France’s Atomic Energy Commission and two French companies, while only 15 percent is owned by Niger’s government…. at the same time as 42 percent of the African country’s population lived below the poverty line. The people of Niger have watched their wealth slip through their fingers for decades.”


Just a month prior to the July Niger coup, moreover, France faced the palpable ire of protestors at home after police fatally shot unarmed 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk during a traffic-violation stop in the Parisian banlieue of Nanterre. The widespread violence that followed, not only in France’s capital city but throughout the country, including Marseille, Lyon, Nice and Strasbourg, brought sharply into focus the clear socioeconomic divisions that exist across the country along ethnic lines. Indeed, immigrants in the country continue to face much higher unemployment rates than the national average—12.7 percent versus 7.9 percent as of 2021—while those from the Maghreb and other African countries experience the highest unemployment rate at 15.3 percent.

During his election campaign, French President Emmanuel (Jean-Michel Frédéric) Macron promised to overhaul France’s policing system, making it more localised to build trust amongst communities after similarly intense riots erupted in 2017 following the brutal police assault of young football player Théo Luhaka. But as the violent unrest demonstrated, little has materially changed under Macron’s leadership. Estimates of fatal police traffic-stop shootings across the country have put the number at 21 since 2020, with most victims being of black or Arab ethnicity, while a 2017 investigation by Défenseur des droits (DDD or Defender of Rights, France’s civil-liberties ombudsman) found that the likelihood of “young men perceived to be Black or Arab” being checked by the police was a mammoth 20 times greater than that of the rest of the French population.

Approximately one-quarter of Nanterre, where Nahel Merzouk lived, comprises immigrants, moreover, with the 2020 unemployment rate in this suburb among those aged 15-24 standing at a hefty 23.1 percent. It was thus only a matter of time before such factors collided to spark a ferocious response among the country’s most disaffected demographics. “I really think young people here consider themselves at war. They see it as [a] war against the system,” Kendra, a resident of Nanterre’s Pablo Picasso estate, told The Guardian in early July, when violent protests were still in full swing. “It is not just against the police, it goes further than that; otherwise, we wouldn’t be seeing it all across France. It’s not just the police under attack but town halls and buildings being targeted…. There’s a political dimension, a sense of the system not working. Young people feel discriminated against and ignored.”

Underscoring the gravity of the responses to Nahel’s killing was the eruption of protests across the world in France’s former and present-day colonies. Much like the demonstrations in Niger, the outrage over the French state’s actions appears to have reached the boiling point, with French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Réunion all displaying visible anger in response to the shooting. A government worker was killed in French Guiana, while police officers reportedly faced gunfire.


As if any further highlighting of the ire directed at French policymakers this year was needed, the first six months saw several waves of protestors take to the streets to oppose President Macron’s pension reforms. Specifically, the fury of the French people grew over government efforts to raise the country’s retirement age to 64 by 2030 from the current level of 62, thus shrinking the state’s pension obligations. “We have a deficit problem, and we have to plug it,” Mr. Macron said in May. “I stand by this reform.” But many in the public disagreed. By March, more than one million people were estimated to have taken to the streets to object to the pension overhaul. In April, protests again turned violent when Macron invoked special constitutional powers to avoid a full parliamentary vote on the issue.

Protests continued sporadically into June, but with key components of the pension overhaul already signed into law, the chances of Macron reversing his decision have now faded considerably. “It’s a victory for the government, but one with mixed results,” Éric Agrikoliansky, a 56-year-old teacher who protested the pension law in early June, told the New York Times. “They won, but they also lost a lot in terms of political credit.” Indeed, the government only narrowly managed to survive a no-confidence vote in March over the pension overhaul, while the ruling party lost its absolute majority in the National Assembly in June 2022, which is likely to neuter its ability to enact reforms going forward.

As such, the political damage from not only this episode but also the resentment that surfaced in 2023 could prove decisive in determining Macron’s ultimate political fate. Economic policies that are seemingly leaving large swathes of people underserved, excluded and frustrated are repeatedly bringing mass movements to the fore. Should the French leadership continue on the same economic course, moreover, it is unlikely the world will see the last of such mobilisations anytime soon.


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