December 15, 2020

French in West Africa

How do our West African friends view French expatriates or immigrants in West Africa? How does the integration of the French expatriate in West Africa proceed? What are the mistakes to avoid?

French in West Africa

A French presence that can be annoying

Many people retain the idea of a certain French omnipresence, fuelled in particular by the intervention for 10 years in the Ivorian crisis and then an endless commitment in the Sahel. This presence irritates some and delights others, depending on which side of the debate one is on.

In this respect, it is obviously not insignificant to be French in West Africa... Apart from the sometimes difficult management of colonial liabilities, decolonisation remains incomplete in the eyes of some. This idea is, for example, fuelled by endless discussions on the role of the CFA franc or the presence of French troops on the continent. The concept of 'Françafrique' has contributed to the image of an emancipation process still in the making. The term refers to the relationship between France and its former colonies in West Africa, which is clearly considered 'neo-colonial'. Some movements denounce the continued dependence of African countries on a France that would organise the enrichment of a local minority in exchange for unlimited access to local natural resources, an idea corroborated by the content of certain 'defence agreements', which have long since become obsolete.

A clear economic erasure

However, between 2001 and 2017, France's market share in Africa fell by more than 50%. While China's market share has increased sixfold. Peugeot pick-ups are giving way to their Japanese or South Korean competitors.  The same phenomenon can be observed in pharmaceuticals, electrical appliances and machine tools. How can we explain this loss of performance by French companies on the African continent? It is true that the notion of a "pre-square" has disappeared and competition is now fierce, especially with European, Chinese, Turkish and Moroccan companies fighting for markets that are more open than ever to competition.  But France's backwardness is also attributable to profound behavioural errors and a lack of understanding of local cultures.

The expatriate: between condescension, paternalism and compassion

French expatriates sometimes forget to immerse themselves in the complexity of a recent history that they are often unaware of and leave without having fully understood the local environment. Of course, the welcome is warm and smiling, and the behaviour is debonair, but the context is rather nationalistic and favourable to "local content".  Faced with an influx of young West Africans who are graduates, or over-educated and often unemployed, the expatriate is not necessarily welcome. They are no longer considered as "divine right" as they were a few decades ago, but they must clearly legitimise themselves by bringing significant added value through their presence.

Some expatriates present typical profiles that are not very well adapted to and compatible with African cultures. For example, the "arrogant" who ignores all local culture and claims to manage his team as in Europe, imposing his ethnocentric model as the only valid one. There is also the "naive" who thinks he can make friends by clumsily imitating Africans. Naturally, a balance must be found between the uncompromising imposition of one's own culture and forgetting it in favour of another whose codes one has only superficially mastered.

Implicit communication

A classic expatriate mistake is the local mode of communication.  A 'yes' is not always a guarantee of support, nor necessarily the assurance that a directive will be implemented. It is necessary to go beyond these facade consensuses which have no other purpose than to preserve the cohesion of the group. It is not customary to openly express disagreement. Many messages are passed on "at low frequency", with a smile, in a friendly context, whereas sometimes the issues raised are extremely serious.

In France, a country of permanent confrontation, the seriousness of the message is culturally linked to its mode of expression (and its volume!). Many expatriates do not understand the seriousness of certain situations because the local agents explain them with a smile. By not being heard or understood, they quickly go to extremes. And then it is too late to react calmly.

A typical failure

The failure of a Western home delivery company is a good example of such blunders. From the outset, management mistakenly adopted an overly informal approach to the local authorities. Dress codes were not respected, with overly familiar behaviour and an overly compassionate mode. The local community has a taste for formality and took this absence as a lack of respect. Subsequently, the deployment on the ground was undertaken without a thorough analysis of local realities: non-existent addressing in most neighbourhoods, extremely common surnames allowing little differentiation between individuals, insufficient bank coverage. Local recruitment was unbalanced in favour of one group due to a lack of vigilance on this subject. Management was carried out under the influence of a 'youthful' doctrine, whereas African societies are extremely hierarchical and tend to associate age with competence.

Africa: a challenge to be met

The expatriate or the company must integrate these intercultural differences in order to succeed in their mission in Africa. It is necessary to understand their origins and the values that underlie them. It is necessary to correctly understand the tools and levers of motivation and to patiently and durably invest in trust, the cornerstone of success in a continent with considerable potential.

Akteos website uses cookies to offer you a personalized browsing experience.

We have also published our data protection policy.

More information