Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso feel impact of France’s visa call

France has suspended student mobility with Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso and told new students from those countries who were about to start studies in France that they may not come after all. Current scholarship students without valid visas will also not be able to travel to France.

The French government has cited security reasons behind its suspension of issuing visas for new students from the three countries, but the decision has been criticised as the outcome of deteriorating diplomatic relations between France and some of its former colonies in the Sahel and has prompted calls from within the academic community in Africa that France should reconsider its decision.

Peter Kwasi Kodjie, the secretary general of the All-Africa Students Union, based in Ghana, said although the organisation understands France’s desire to express disapproval of military coups, he was disappointed in France’s decision, which would disrupt the education plans of students from these countries.

There was a coup in Niger in July 2023, two coups in Burkina Faso in 2022 and two in Mali since 2020. The latest coup on the continent took place in Gabon in August 2023.

Said Kodjie: “This move seems to represent lingering colonialist tendencies against countries perceived to be rebelling against French influence. At the same time, it is hypocritical that Gabon has been excluded from the suspension … when you consider that Gabon, which is also undergoing a similar political crisis, has not faced such punitive measures.”

“We call on France to reconsider this double standard,” he said.

To date, France is the world’s top destination for mobile students from Sub-Saharan Africa. France hosted 92,000 students from Sub-Saharan Africa in 2021-22, representing 23% of international students in France.

Campus France told University World News that in the current academic year there are 6,600 students in France from the three Sahelian countries: 2,900 from Mali, 2,500 from Burkina Faso and 1,200 from Niger, representing 7% of the total number of students from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Cancelling support

New students from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso received emails from the French foreign affairs ministry in August saying that their stay and financial support – air fares, grants and allowances, and health insurance – had been cancelled for the start of the university year because of “events that took place in Niamey [the military takeover in Niger] at the end of July”, reported Le Monde.

According to Le Monde, the message that was delivered to the students by the French foreign ministry read: “I regret to inform you that we are cancelling our support for your stay in France; all Campus France services are cancelled.”

Koffi (not his real name) is a geography PhD student at the University Joseph Ki-Zerbo in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso whose thesis is being co-directed by IMAF, the African Worlds Institute, a branch of the CNRS, the French national scientific research centre, reported Le Monde.

He was due to spend three months on a research project in France but received notice of the cancellation two days before his departure date from Burkina Faso. Koffi told the paper he had a French visa valid until February and an air ticket paid for by Campus France.

Aya, another Burkinabé student, was due to start a masters course in information technology at Lumière University Lyon 2. Her father told Le Monde: “Everything was ready; my daughter had an appointment to pick up her visa on 8 August, but the ban on delivering them came in on 4 August.”

He said dozens of students found themselves immobilised for an unknown period, “innocent victims of the current diplomatic crisis”.

Everything to do with France was becoming more complicated, and young people were increasingly turning to Ghana to learn English and to later leave to study in the United States, he said.

Current vs prospective students

Campus France told University World News on 20 September that the new policy would not change anything for students from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger who are currently in France. “They can continue with their studies normally,” a Campus France spokesperson said.

He noted that students who were on scholarships would continue receiving their money. “As confirmed by Catherine Colonna, the minister for foreign affairs, artists, students and researchers already in France will continue with their activities and are welcome,” said the spokesperson.

Asked whether France was going to close its borders completely for students from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, Campus France stressed that for now, only the students, artists, intellectuals and researchers that currently hold a visa would be able to go to France.

“Regarding the issuance of new visas, the government will reassess the situation depending on security developments in the region,” Campus France told University World News.

But commenting as to what was likely to happen with students on scholarships who are currently outside France, Campus France firmly stated that only scholarship holders who are currently holding a visa could travel to France.

What this means is that students whose visa might have expired will not be allowed in France, irrespective of whether they have a scholarship or not. In this regard, the Campus France spokesperson said the cases of scholarship students who are not in France and do not have a valid visa will depend on the situation on the ground.

“For the moment, the suspension is due to the fact that Campus France and visa services can no longer operate normally,” said the higher education utility’s spokesperson, who did not want to be quoted by name.

Chance to reverse the decision?

Calls have emerged from within the academic community for a reversal of the decision.

“I do hope that France’s diplomats will play a key role to provide some suitable and sustainable solutions for students from the concerned countries – and beyond,” Theophile Bindeoue Nasse, a lecturer at New Dawn University in Burkina Faso, told University World News

“This is crucial because most of the students here have lost the desire to study in France’s universities,” Nasse stressed, saying that France could still reverse its decision.

“I think that the decision is purely political. But, as an African academic, I expected the French authorities to have been more diplomatic,” Nasse said.

“Suspending student mobility with Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali will push these nations to cooperate with other countries or partners such as other Western or Asian countries,” Nasse added.

According to Nasse, universities in Burkina Faso have been receiving support from the United States, Germany, China, Canada and Morocco in strategic areas that are important for sustainable development.

The Council of Nigerians in France has appealed to the authorities in Niger and France to find a solution for the students whose visas might have expired. The Union of Nigerian University Students or Union des Scolaires Nigeriens has asked the students to be patient and realistic given that the Niger regime has broken its diplomatic relations with France.

Weakening diplomatic ties

The move to suspend student visas is almost similar to the controversy that erupted in the art community.

On 14 September, instructions from France’s regional cultural affairs directorates, originating from the foreign affairs ministry, caused much controversy in arts circles by ordering an immediate halt to all cooperation with cultural establishments and projects from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, reported Le Monde.

France would therefore no longer issue visas to nationals of the three countries and banned subsidised cultural establishments from cooperating with artists from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Although the French Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malak on 15 September clarified that France has always been an open and welcoming nation for artists, it was made clear that no visas would be given to cultural artists in the three countries, as consular offices have been closed.

“It is not physically possible to issue visas for artists wishing to come to France,” said Abdul Malak, adding that the decision would only affect few people.

Even so, the move was criticised by the National Syndicate of Artistic and Cultural Companies, or SYNDEAC, which stressed that the suspension of visas to students, cultural artists and researchers from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger constituted an error from a political point of view.

Rachid Ramane, who is the president of the Federation of Artistic and Cultural Associations of Niger, said last week that they would not beg. “We are artists of the world and we can’t remove our cultures from the world’s culture,” said Ramane.

But unlike musicians and other cultural artists that can fall back on their expertise without having to go and perform in France, the students, especially those on scholarships from the French government whose visas have expired, are bound to lose heavily in the event of visa denials.

Hit hard will be postgraduate students who were expected to do their research in France but will not be able to do so with the visa suspensions, while others will eventually miss their scholarships to study abroad.

Several academics contacted in the affected countries told University World News they did not want to comment or be seen to criticise France.

Additional reporting by Jane Marshall.