French Military Education in Africa: New Cooperation Possibilities for the United States?


As the United States continues to expand its military cooperation with France for combat operations to address Islamic extremism in Africa, another area the United States may want to collaborate with France is building professional military forces in Africa. Unlike the United States, France has a much more robust and cohesive system for providing military education to Africa’s militaries in West and Central Africa and a wealth of experience in providing this education. However, there may be some challenges in working with France.

Known in France as capacity building at the politico-military or strategic level (renforcement des capacités au niveau politico-militaire stratégique), French security assistance activities are divided into two separate categories: ““structural cooperation” and “operational cooperation”. Structural cooperation is comprised mostly of Professional Military Education (PME) and advisory activities and is run by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Development through the Direction of the Cooperation of Security and Defense (Direction de la Coopération de Sécurité et de Défense –DCSD).  The Ministry of Defense through the Joint Staff (État-Major des Armées) runs French “operational cooperation” military aid. This cooperation supports the operational readiness of its partner nations and is focused on educating the enlisted personnel of partner militaries as opposed to programs that target military officers under the structural cooperation program.

The French security assistance system aims to educate partner nations’ military officers, using French military trainers and advisors known as coopérants. Coopérants maintain a vast educational network across Africa. Training is conducted by operational instructional detachments (détachements d’instruction opérationnelle) and technical instruction detachments (détachements d’instruction technique).

Through the structural cooperation model, the goal of The National Regionally Based Vocational Schools or Les Écoles Nationales à Vocation Régionale (ENVR) is to open a joint venture between France and its partner nation, allowing the recipient nation to host a quality of military or defense education similar to that of Metropolitan France but at a lower price. The schools promote regional integration as students from across Africa attend these schools. France also encourages partner nations to take ownership of the schools in the hopes of increasing management and accountability on the part of the host nation. 

Schools are divided among the following types of training: General Military Training, Technical Military Training, Medical Military Training, Internal Security Training, and Peacekeeping Operations Training (see infographic.) To date, there are sixteen ENVRs in ten partner nations. In West Africa, France maintains two ENVRs in Senegal, two in Mali, two in Benin, and one each in Niger, Burkina-Faso, and Togo. In Central Arica, France maintains three ENVRs in Cameroon, two in Gabon, and one each in the Republic of the Congo, and Equatorial Guinea. Total operating costs for the schools, apart from the funding of coopérants stationed at the schools is roughly $11.4 Million a year.

Although the U.S. government provides a diverse range of sometimes-piecemeal military education training to African security forces, the United States does not have anything comparable to these French schools in Africa. As a result, these schools may provide an opportunity for new U.S.-France cooperation. If the United States were to work with the French military education schools, the United States could help train many more African soldiers in their home countries on issues of importance to both the United States and France at a potentially reduced cost. It could help strengthen African militaries' own efforts to provide training to their forces. Coordinating with the French in military education could also reduce the number of times the French and the Americans provide the same types of military training to the same African security force units.

Both the United States and France have recently embarked on a partnership at the French ENVR in Bamako, Mali. The school can serve as a model for future cooperation, as it has recently changed its status from an ENVR to international school. The curriculum, centered on peacekeeping, sustains a wide array of students from across the continent. Additionally, the school is run by a board of trustees with contributions coming from not only France but also the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands. The Bamako school is noteworthy because it is the first international school of its kind, and France has been a catalyst in shifting its operating strategy from a unilateral approach to a multilateral approach, as evidenced by the lowering of the annual contribution to $170,800 a year, and the stationing of only one advisor or coopérant.

The International School and its fellow ENVRs further provide a direct forum for African allies to take ownership of these programs and provide training for their fellow Africans. With much of the faculty coming from the host nations, this system promotes a relationship of equality between France and the partner nation, as opposed to a more paternal donor-recipient relationship. Increased management of the schools from the partner nation is assuredly a welcomed development in creating more viable and representative military institutions across the continent.

While coordinating with the French on the ENVRs presents many opportunities, there are also some potential challenges. DoD and the Ministry of Defense in France may not always agree on the types or content of military education. Integration between these authorities would require both bureaucracies to create a trans-Atlantic understanding of universally accepted training techniques. Moving faculty from around Africa to teach at these schools has already provided a logistical problem for the French. Would U.S. input simplify this process or create yet another loud voice at the planning table? The French are also much less transparent about their military aid, which could complicate U.S. taxpayer efforts to understand the nature and extent of U.S. military aid to Africa. Finally, this coordination has the potential to complicate France’s relationships with fellow EU member states, which are playing an increasing role in military aid.

While both countries have indeed begun cooperating more in the recent years, both countries could do more to coordinate on their efforts to train professional and accountable militaries and institutions. Military aid and the bureaucracies that govern it can be a complex issue, not to mention military aid that is split between two robust nations with different ways of conducting business. However, it’s possible to see how channels for increased cooperation do indeed exist. Franco-American coordination could become a reality.