latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
t the start of Ousmane Sembène’s 1975 film Xala, a group of Black men in bright, silken dashikis stride up the steps of Dakar’s Chambre de Commerce. Stationed impassively in its boardroom are three white men in dark suits and dark glasses. The Senegalese challengers quickly depose these last hangers-on of the French imperial regime. Pomp and ceremony ensue, with dancing and cheers on the Dakar street.
But Sembène did not believe in easy victories. In the film’s next scene, the Frenchmen return to the Chambre de Commerce, their path cleared by a contingent of Senegalese police. The Frenchmen enter the boardroom silently, carrying seven briefcases. They place one in front of each new board member, now dressed in tuxedos. (One, Xala’s protagonist El Hadji, will be marrying his third wife later that afternoon.) Opening the briefcases brings a smile of surprise to most men around the table. Inside are stacks of cash. Only the new president of the Chambre de Commerce reacts with apprehension - all at once he seems no longer so sovereign - but by the film’s end he will have figured out how to get along with a white shadow. (These shots of the cash-filled briefcases were among cuts made by Senegalese censors before Xala could be publicly screened (Gugler & Diop 1998), only restored later.)
Though unremarked upon in Xala, the substance of those briefcases is not “cash” in general, but the CFA franc in particular. The franc CFA (originally denoting Colonies françaises d’Afrique) is the official currency of Senegal and most other former French colonies in Africa, from before national independence through the present-day. This monetary system and its history are the subjects of a new book by Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla, Africa’s Last Colonial Currency (2021), translated by Thomas Fazi from a 2018 French edition. The book brings to the attention of Anglophone readers the peculiar institutions through which the French Republic continues to exercise colonial rule over nominally independent African states. France’s recent “counterterrorism” operations across the Sahel region (supported and rivaled in scope by the United States’ Africa Command, AFRICOM) represent only one phase in what the Black Alliance for Peace (2020) has called France’s “active and aggressive military presence in Africa for years.” Aggression has often had monetary motivations, and control has often exceeded aggression. One of Pigeaud and Sylla’s commitments and achievements is to show how “French ‘soft’ monetary power is inseparable from its ‘hard’ military power” (2021: 99). In their telling, the CFA franc has for decades been France’s secret weapon in “Françafrique,” the zone in Africa where France, its representatives, and its monetary system have never really left.
Sylla, an economist at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Dakar, is an increasingly prominent voice on money and finance from the international left. Pigeaud is a journalist with decades of reporting experience in Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. The two make a good pair. Offering a crystal-clear dissection of a purposefully opaque economic system, Africa’s Last Colonial Currency is at once exposé, history, and economics explainer - and a marker of new directions for critical political economy in the 21st century.
Origins of the CFA Franc
The franc CFA was born in Paris on the 25th of December, 1945, with the signature of General Charles de Gaulle and France’s ministers of finance and the colonies. The colonial situation was plain: in 1945, the abbreviation CFA indicated Colonies française d’Afrique, extending across two main colonial federations, French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa, as well as Cameroon, Togo, French Somaliland (now Djibouti), Madagascar, and Réunion. (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco had their own specific franc denominations, as did certain French colonies and dependencies elsewhere.) For decades prior, colonial governments and private European banks had striven to “forcibly convert local societies to the colonial capitalist system” through taxes payable only in francs, supplanting and suppressing indigenous economic systems (7). The franc and its commercial infrastructure cemented what Pigeaud and Sylla call the colonial pact, the intra-imperial division of labor restricting industrial labor and monopoly ownership to the French while offering “commercial preferences to the products of the colonies” (8). To be sure, these “preferential regimes” mostly offered opportunity for the profiteering from colony to metropole so influentially characterized by dependency theorists as ‘underdevelopment.’
By 1945, however, the Second World War had thoroughly disrupted the imperial order. Metropolitan France suffered widespread food shortages, high inflation, and dwindling reserves of the foreign currencies necessary for importing other materials for rebuilding the nation. To join the international monetary system forged in the Bretton Woods agreements - ratified by the French on that same 1945 Christmas - the metropolitan franc would need to be devalued against the U.S. dollar, bolstered by the much stronger U.S. economy. In a spirit of “selflessness,” declared French finance minister René Pleven, France did “not want to impose on its distant daughters the consequences of its own poverty” (12). Differentiating the metropolitan franc from a new CFA franc would thus spare the colonies from this harsh devaluation. According to Pleven, a differently-valued CFA currency, at a fixed exchange rate (first, 1 to 1.70) with the metropolitan franc but freely convertible from one to the other, would better “respect” Africans’ “needs and their local contingencies” (12).
The embattled empire was compelled to “loosen its grip” in Africa, extending new rights and privileges to African subjects who had “played a decisive role in the war effort” and now insisted on social improvements (10). Consequently, argue Pigeaud and Sylla, the creation of the CFA franc was “actually designed to allow France to regain control of its colonies” (13).
What Minister Pleven called generosity might better be called a swindle. While the French franc faced devaluation, the CFA franc came into existence over-valued . Pigeaud and Sylla break down how this mismatch was “perfectly functional to Paris’s interests” (13). French goods-for-export, now priced in a devalued currency (made cheaper), would find easy markets in the colonies, increasingly through middle-men like Xala’s Chambre de Commerce. African goods - especially important raw materials, from uranium to cocoa, priced too expensively for domestic consumption and now (by virtue of the “strong” CFA franc) more expensively than those of other tropical suppliers - would find buyers more exclusively in France, who would not have to use foreign reserves to purchase these essential imports. In effect, the new CFA monetary policies re-consolidated France’s imperial economy even as the monopoly regime of the colonial pact could be formally retired in recognition of demands for change from colonial subjects.
This pattern of surface transformation and structural continuity finds a case in point in the abbreviation CFA. First, in 1958, after the empire’s “loi-cadre” reforms and a restored President de Gaulle’s increasing efforts to contain the anticolonial energies of Dien Bien Phu, Bandung, and Algiers (Cooper 1996: 429), the Colonies françaises d’Afrique were re-christened the Communauté française d’Afrique. By 1960, the names changed again, with formal decolonization in most of Françafrique and the splitting of the CFA zone into regional blocs: principally the Communauté financière en Afrique (in 7 countries of the former French West Africa, plus Guinea-Bissau since 1997) and Coopération financière en Afrique centrale (in 5 countries of the former French Equatorial Africa, plus Equatorial Guinea since 1984). CFA to CFA to CFA, the egalitarian parlance of community and cooperation modernized French colonial authority, making it more invisible rather than marking its end.
Guarantees and Other Fixes
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the saying goes. The CFA franc has persisted even as France’s empire in Africa gave way to independent nation-states (except Réunion, made an overseas département) and even as the French franc was replaced by the euro. For insights into this central dilemma, Pigeaud and Sylla turn to the inner workings of the CFA franc system. Its key principles have remained remarkably durable over decades. Most importantly, France has held up a guarantee of unlimited convertibility between CFA francs and French currency for the three regional central banks of the CFA zone, where blocs of African countries have pooled reserves and coordinated monetary policy since 1955 (institutionalizing the post-1945 CFA franc system).
This guarantee has two key conditions. First, CFA francs can only ever be converted into France’s currency (franc before 1999, euro ever since) before being exchanged for other currencies; even different regional CFA francs must first be converted into the French unit before another CFA franc. Second, the CFA zone central banks have been required to hold an “operations account” at the French Treasury in which to store proportions of their foreign reserves. (These proportions have been lowered in response to moments of political challenge, first from maximal down to 65% in 1967 and then again to 50% in 2005.) France’s convertibility guarantee and these stipulations help maintain the fixed parity of the CFA and French currencies and, in the event of overdrafting at the Françafrique central banks, prevent an emergency devaluation of the CFA franc.
It bears clarifying: the “fixed” exchange rate underwriting this system has only ever been fixable by French authorities and only ever adjusted at their discretion, according to their need and benefit. And despite the French Treasury’s purported guarantee against devaluations of the CFA franc, devaluations of the CFA franc have occurred, and only ever on account of French decisions (67). The late Egyptian economist Samir Amin, an adviser to anticolonial leaders across the continent since the 1950s, once remembered the situation as follows:
I thought the CFA was overvalued, but to varying degrees depending on each country, and that this gap between countries would increase more and more, as national development policies and their results also differed between countries…I insisted that it had to be understood that a devaluation was not in itself something to be ashamed of, but that it had to be self-controlled; that we should avoid putting ourselves in the position of having it forced upon us by the ‘market,’ the French Treasury or the IMF. (73)
In 1994, in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund and against the wishes of most African leaders, French authorities adjusted the franc zone exchange rate for the first time, devaluing the CFA franc by half. This blanket devaluation was the shock through which structural adjustment was forced upon Françafrique - an experience satirized in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1994 film Le Franc. And the devaluation proved, to Pigeaud and Sylla, that France’s “‘guarantee of unlimited convertibility’ was an intellectual and political fraud” (74).
Nevertheless, French authorities have continually held up - that is, brandished and exploited - this guarantee, without honoring it. France has never needed to act on the unlimited convertibility commitment and perhaps never intended to do so. The CFA zone central banks, on whose boards French representatives sit and exercise effective veto power, have maintained stringent money management standards and never faced a convertibility crisis. It is, instead, these central banks in Africa that have guaranteed both the ongoing convertibility of the CFA franc and France’s own financial prestige and opportunities for colonial control and accumulation. Pigeaud and Sylla do not mince words: “France uses its presumed role of ‘guarantor’ as a pretext and as a tool to blackmail its former colonies in order to keep them in its orbit, both economically and politically” (38).
Economically, Pigeaud and Sylla argue, the French Treasury’s guarantee has overdetermined Françafrique policymakers’ prioritization of “stability” - of prices, as well as of the CFA franc’s fixed exchange rate with the franc/euro. In the viciously circular logic of the CFA system, this stability can only be sustained by the continuation of the franc zone and France’s “tutelage.” In pursuit of stability, the CFA central banks have long adopted monetary policies precisely opposite to the development needs of the nations and people they are officially meant to serve. Stifling domestic credit is but one way in which broad-based, widely-shared economic growth has been sacrificed to meet the rigid prescriptions of North Atlantic experts. In that respect, the CFA franc system has ensured economic stability in Françafrique: the stabilization of raw material exportation and goods importation, hierarchy and indirect rule, parasitic accumulation and mass impoverishment, in short, the colonial order.
The Colonial Playbook
And all along, France has found - or compelled, coerced, and more-or-less directly put in place - useful political partners in Françafrique. In the 1950s, to avoid anticolonial wars like those in Madagascar, Vietnam, and Algeria, or like the British faced in Kenya, France cultivated favorable African allies before “granting the sub-Saharan colonies an independence that would be preemptively devoid of any real substance” (16). The CFA franc has been central to the French strategy of decolonization-in-name-only, providing auxiliary benefits for some wealthy Africans. Rather than (or, perhaps, alongside) briefcases full of cash from French envoys, the CFA currency system itself has enabled African elites to import with greater purchasing-power and, with the free movement of capital in the franc zone, to “stash their legally gained or not fortunes abroad” (93; cf. Ndikumana & Boyce 2011). In Xala subalterns are able to curse the corrupt elite and perform an ultimate comeuppance - “Xala,” in Wolof, names the sexual impotence cast upon El Hadji by the leader of a chorus of landless beggars (dispossessed, in fact, through a fraud perpetrated by a younger El Hadji on his way up the business ladder). In actuality, France has frequently leveraged its financial, diplomatic, and military capacities to insulate friendly African governments against popular challenge and opposition movements.
When and where demands for self-determination and changes to the monetary system (usually more minor than exit or abolition) have been strongest, from charismatic leaders or from below, they have been met with a retaliatory response from France and its African partners, frequently going so far as “destabilisation campaigns and even assassinations and coups d’état” (40). In one chapter, Pigeaud and Sylla recount a stunning history of anticolonial critique and colonial retribution.
The first case is exemplary. In 1958, Ahmed Sékou Touré helped lead Guinea to independence, though his stirring rhetoric (“We prefer to be poor in freedom than rich in slavery”) was more radical than his reform ambitions (41). Guinea was alone in voting down De Gaulle’s “Community” proposal, and after the fizzling of negotiations with France for how Guinea might stay in the CFA zone with relaxed rules, the new state established its own national currency and central bank by 1960. Although other courses of action were considered by different French authorities, the decision was ultimately made to make Guinea a cautionary tale for the rest of Françafrique. French counter-intelligence officials plotted and hired out a series of mercenary attacks (“with the aim of creating a climate of insecurity and, if possible, overthrowing Sékou Touré,” recalled one such operative), in conjunction with “Operation Persil,” a scheme to flood the Guinean economy with false Guinean bills, successfully bringing about a devastating crash (43). De Gaulle’s Prime Minister Georges Pompidou declared Guinea’s experience of independence “suicidal,” naturalizing as invisible his government’s hand in the chaos (43). Yet, Sékou Touré was never removed, only ostracized - unlike Sylvanus Olympio in Togo or Modiba Keita in Mali, others whose (initially minor) desired changes to the CFA status quo were refused and rebuffed and who were then deposed in French-linked coups. A coup in Guinea in September 2021 has been connected to French and U.S. AFRICOM training, as have other recent coups across the continent (Moro 2021).
In the CFA zone, the France-aligned status quo has claimed the mantle of unity, leaving those who would chart a new course alone and more vulnerable to consequences (however manufactured). Indeed, in 1958, future president of Côte d’Ivoire and longtime French ally Félix Houphouët-Boigny had warned (the French), “If France gives preference to those who secede from the Community over those who choose to remain, the example of Guinea will spread like wildfire” (41). Pigeaud and Sylla describe Houphouët-Boigny and Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor as “complicit” in France’s assault on Guinea, choosing the compromising stability and ersatz solidarity of the CFA franc zone over a more radical break from the colonial order.
In an essay on Xala and the role of intellectuals in political struggle, Cedric Robinson (1980: 149) mused that “the petite-bourgeoisie alone are not a fit subject matter for the committed artist or the social critic.” It is too easy to chide and condemn them, he wrote. Members of that class veer “too close to self-parody in their immersion in petty corruption, petty politics, petty morality and the ‘brief-case’ independence with which they are so intimately associated.” But it is not the measure of men at their smallest and most crooked that Sembène ultimately pursues in Xala nor Pigeaud and Sylla in Africa’s Last Colonial Currency.
Similarly, the task Robinson (1980: 152) described as “stripping away the façade of political power to reveal the persistence of foreign domination” is only part of Sembène’s project, and Pigeaud and Sylla’s after him. Xala’s briefcase-dealing Frenchmen and their real-life equivalents in the French Treasury, diplomatic corps, and Élysée Palace weren’t/aren’t puppet masters pulling strings, but agents who cajole and threaten and plot and mask. In Pigeaud and Sylla’s account, all actors are on a stage not of their making, entrenched in histories and systems that exceed any one’s full awareness or control.
Both Xala and Africa’s Last Colonial Currency, then, make visible relations in which colonial rule has persisted even in its apparent absence, profit has flowed even from poverty, and dreams and projects of freedom have flowered even under domination. In Xala’s dispossessed and their curse, a weapon of the weak, Robinson (1980: 154) recognized “the spiritual and moral consciousness formed by African peoples in their effort to come to terms with their historical experience,” anticipating his idiosyncratic formulation of “the Black Radical Tradition” (Robinson  2000). Pigeaud and Sylla’s finest contribution is foregrounding a Black radical tradition in Françafrique, expressed in popular anticolonial movements as well as in a critical political economy but often blurring distinctions between struggle and study.
After all, the most eloquent, incisive critique of the CFA franc system - deeply influential for Pigeaud and Sylla’s own approach (Sylla 2012) - comes from a 1985 interview with Thomas Sankara, then president of Burkina Faso before being assassinated two years later. In one brief response, Sankara illuminated the position of “the African peasant” alongside that of “the French capitalist mercantile bourgeoisie,” identified the CFA franc “monetary monopoly” as the system structuring their relations, and articulated why Burkinabé fought “to build an independent and self-sufficient economy” (59; Sankara  2007). The martyred Sankara remains legendary in Pan-Africanist political spheres, but Africa’s Last Colonial Currency brings his still-relevant analysis and still-remarkable worldview to bear on discussions of international political economy so long rendered technical, esoteric, and (falsely) value-neutral.
So too the Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi, an even more overlooked figure since his death at the age of 47 in 1984. Pouemi’s experience working at the IMF in the 1970s led him to recognize that the leaders of the international monetary system would “repress any government that tries to offer their country a minimum of wellbeing” (60) and could do so especially easily in Françafrique because of the CFA franc. After leaving the IMF, Pouemi (1980) wrote Monnaie, servitude, liberté: la répression monétaire de l’Afrique, called a “masterpiece” by Pigeaud and Sylla but never yet translated into English. Africa’s Last Colonial Currency helps recover and circulate the late Pouemi’s work, emphasizing his foundational insights into the CFA zone’s operations along with his demands for monetary sovereignty and the abolition of the CFA franc and Françafrique system. Pouemi’s overarching insistence, however, was that the CFA franc was egregious but not exceptional: Africans in and beyond the franc zone were deprived of sovereignty in the international monetary system through a range of instruments - and, in the decades since his death, have remained so. Pouemi’s insights will be essential to any post-CFA franc future, for liberation will require more than one colonial currency arrangement’s demise.
Pigeaud and Sylla demonstrate why and how Sankara and Pouemi should be touchstones in the critical study of money and banking, too long centered on European and American cases and theorists. Africa’s Last Colonial Currency ought to also be taken up in the overlapping (and less parochial) study of racial capitalism, for which Cedric Robinson’s work has been foundational. But Robinson ( 2000) emphasized that his account of racial capitalism and the Black radical tradition was only partial. The radical critics of the CFA franc and Françafrique should rank high among other “lineages” of thinking on racial capitalism deserving greater attention (Hudson 2018).
Pigeaud and Sylla themselves, however, stop short of addressing race as a feature of the franc zone. That French society and empire have claimed “race-blind,” universalist values - a discourse long assailed by Ousmane Sembène and contemporaries like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, but persistently resilient (Keaton, Sharpley-Whiting, & Stovall 2012) - makes an explicit elaboration of racial formations in Françafrique and the CFA system all the more necessary. Unremarked upon by Pigeaud and Sylla, though traceable in their references, is the historical transformation of l’Afrique noire (Black Africa) into “sub-Saharan Africa,” what Jemima Pierre (2018: 15) calls the “geographic-cum-racial division of the African continent,” even as race becomes unnamed. This division was inscribed into currency, as France’s colonies in “North Africa” were included in the broader franc zone but never in the CFA arrangement. After independence from the French Empire in 1956, the ex-protectorates Tunisia and Morocco replaced their unique franc denominations with national currencies; Algeria, following a long and bloody anticolonial struggle, would do the same upon independence in 1962. What would a full accounting reveal of the racializing causes, effects, and evolutions of these different monetary policies?
Race and racism color the retrenchment of colonial-capitalist relations in Françafrique, as well as any potential for change. Especially pertinent to clarify would be the roles of race - and, indeed, active race-blinding - in processes (and fantasies) of “Africanizing” the CFA franc, flag independence, and institutions like central banks and Chambres de Commerce (63). For “Africanization” to actually amount to African monetary sovereignty, Pigeaud and Sylla argue, would require the abolition of the CFA franc system. How, then, has so much less than sovereignty been sustained for so long? Along with the financial machinations and military exploits so well documented, racial regimes are surely essential pieces of the puzzle.
Whether or not Pigeaud and Sylla consider such issues beyond their métiers, Africa’s Last Colonial Currency, with its rich empirical detail, offers ample grounds for considering them. What’s more, these are problems that critical political economists must take on today - as predecessors have. In the international “racist-capitalist power structure,” Bernard Magubane (1979: 3-4, 16) once wrote, race is foremost among the “political and ideological systems” enabling “the ruthless transfer of wealth from colonized to the colonizer, from black to white, from worker to capitalist.” That a few Black hands in Françafrique might accrue some wealth along the way makes this transfer no less ruthless, but perhaps more enduring.
A tradition Pigeaud and Sylla do affiliate with is Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), a heterodox form of economics recently popularized in the U.S. and Europe by Stephanie Kelton (2020), Nathan Tankus, and others. Still, Africa’s Last Colonial Currency shows less that MMT might help diagnose the ails of the CFA franc zone than that African thinkers including Pouemi, Sankara, and Samir Amin had already formulated complementary demands for monetary sovereignty and critiques of the liberal and neoliberal orthodoxies imposed on - or made convincing to - nominally independent African governments. MMT is sometimes characterized by critics as U.S.-centric, applicable not so much to nations that print and manage their own currency but more specifically to the home of the U.S. dollar, the world’s reserve currency. Africa’s Last Colonial Currency transcends pre-existing debates between MMT’s proponents and skeptics, modeling how to reorient the locations and frames of analysis from and through which the global economy is known. More, similar studies should follow.
When the CFA franc someday ceases to exist, however, it won’t be accomplished solely because of the insights or influence of Pigeaud and Sylla. What they inspire may be less important than what has inspired them: the “unprecedented mobilisation” of a “nascent popular movement” against the CFA system, already in motion all across the CFA zone (121-122).
Since the 2018 publication of this book’s Francophone edition, French president Emmanuel Macron and Ivorian president Allassane Ouattara (who ascended to office after a disputed election in 2010, with the support of France and much of the “international community”) have proposed additional Africanizing reforms and a new name for the CFA franc, the “eco.” The “eco,” not coincidentally, is also the name of the proposed currency of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, long the regional counterweight to Françafrique institutions. Whether the ECOWAS “eco” should replace the Françafrique “eco,” or independent national currencies should replace any federation, Pigeaud and Sylla are most concerned that the fundamental principles of colonial finance be entirely up-ended.
No matter the co-optations and other maneuvers still in store: “the fight,” Pigeaud and Sylla insist, “for economic and monetary sovereignty in the service of the prosperity of the African people can only continue” (144). The more things change, that fight will remain.
 By comparison, in the sterling area of Britain’s colonies, the West African sterling held half the value of a British pound, nearly opposite the CFA franc/French franc exchange rate. Nevertheless, see Tinashe Nyamunda (2017) on Britain’s own attempts in the 1940s “to resuscitate the imperial economy on the back of African colonies, especially under pressure to settle dominions’ sterling balances.”
Black Alliance for Peace (2020) “Why We Focus on Africa.” Black Agenda Report. Available here (accessed 10 October 2021).
Gugler, J, & Diop OC (1998) “Ousmane Sembène’s Xala: The Novel, the Film, and Their Audiences.” Research in African Literatures 29(2): 147-158.
Hudson, PJ (2018) “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice.” Boston Review. Available here (accessed 10 October 2021).
Keaton, TD, Sharpley-Whiting TD, & Stovall T, eds (2012) Black France/France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kelton, S (2020) The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy. New York: PublicAffairs.
Magubane, B (1979) The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Moro, R (2021) “Guinea: bauxite, coups and AFRICOM.” Al Mayadeen. Available here (accessed 10 October 2021).
Nyamunda, T (2017) “British Sterling Imperialism, Settler Colonialism and the Political Economy of Money and Finance in Southern Rhodesia, 1945 to 1962.” African Economic History 45(1): 77-109.
Pierre, J (2018) “Africa/African.” In Desai G. & Masquelier A. (eds) Critical Terms for the Study of Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 12-26.
Pouemi, JT (1980) Monnaie, servitude et liberté: La répression monétaire de l’Afrique. Paris: Éditions Jeune Afrique.
Robinson, C (1980) “Domination and imitation: Xala and the emergence of the black bourgeoisie.” Race and Class 22(2): 147-158.
Robinson, C ( 2000) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel-Hill: UNC Press.
Sankara, T ( 2007) Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983–87. New York: Pathfinder Press.
Sylla, NS (2012) Redécouvrir Sankara: Martyr de la liberté. Douala: Éditions AfricAvenir.
Matt Schneider is a PhD student and worker at the University of California, Los Angeles.