Class Dismissed: France Suspends Student Visas For Sahel Nations

Scholarships and visas awarded by France to students from the Sahel countries of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have been suspended this academic year. An email received by students from the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research stated that their allocated funding was no longer available following the suspension of development aid from France, and that this was due to “security reasons”. The three countries’ democratically elected governments have been toppled by a series of military coups over the last three years, the latest in Niger this July. 

Campus France, the nation’s agency for the promotion of higher education, international student services, and international mobility announced via a spokesperson on 20th September 2023 that current student visa-holders in France from the three nations would be permitted to stay, but that the issuance of new visas would depend on the situation on the ground. Students and Francophone media outlets have expressed disdain for the decision. “Révolution Permanente”, an organisation and online information outlet which claims to speak for the “exploited and oppressed”, expressed the view that “French imperialism” had contributed to the current crisis in the region. The outlet cited the extraction of resources by French multinational companies and the imposition of a common currency as having led to rising levels of unemployment, and that many students sought French scholarships as a means to improve their employability.

Aside from the fact that higher education is proven to provide students with a larger variety and higher paid career paths, and thereby a route out of poverty and unemployment, there are implications far beyond education’s impact on the individual. International higher education exchanges permit communication and exposure to different national and cultural values which they will take forward in their lives and careers. We must remember that the current education system is in the process of forming the next generation of leaders. If their education has been narrow, with no cross-cultural and cross-national consideration of history and ideologies, it is very likely that this generation of leaders will be characterised by narrow thinking and a self-interested approach to foreign policy. This, as we can observe in the colonial era, can result in catastrophic suffering, war and oppression. In order to ensure that future governments in France and the Sahel region, it is imperative that educational exchanges are reinstated in the long term in order to foster a culture of negotiation and understanding that will avoid the escalation of tension and resort to armed conflict that we observe today. 

The three states, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, are all former French colonial lands. Since their independence, the countries retained ties with France, including via education. A Campus France report stated that France was the main host of Sub-Saharan students, counting 92,000 in 2021/22. Former Presidents Keïta of Mali and Kaboré of Burkina Faso both studied at French universities. However, since the democratically elected governments were toppled by military coups beginning in Mali in 2020, the countries’ rule has been marked by a severing of relations with France, price hikes on basic goods due to international sanctions, and an increase in violent crime and terrorist insurgencies as groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS seek to benefit from this instability.

The denial of visas to aspiring students of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger may well be immediately necessary for the “security reasons” on which France has not elaborated on. However, should this policy continue into the long-term it may pose a serious threat to both French and Sahelian governance. An awareness of another state’s cultural, economic, and political background is essential to peaceful cooperation between nations. Educational exchanges play an important role in facilitating this inter-cultural and international communication between young people who will become future leaders. If global leaders have not received the opportunity to consider perspectives other than their country’s own, it is likely that their leadership will promote solely the national interest rather than cooperation and peace.