Rioters in Dakar have looted French businesses including supermarket chain Auchan and fuel retailer Total as protests have swept the city. Auchan, which is the largest retailer in the country, has now closed all its supermarkets across Dakar. Senegal has seen its worst unrest in years, which began after charismatic opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was arrested in early March.
Auchan has said that 14 of its 32 outlets in Senegal have been targeted – in some cases looted, burnt and gutted. The French chain, which is the largest retailer in the country, has now closed all its supermarkets across Dakar. Fuel retailer Total, which has a large network across the country, has also been targeted. Civil engineering firm Eiffage has also reportedly been targeted. It is a major blow for Auchan, which acquired the rival Citydia network of stores in 2017 and for whom Senegal is by far its most important African market.
Looters and opposition leaders have claimed that the root cause of the actions against French businesses is hunger, poverty and a sense that incomes are not improving quickly enough. Four in ten Senegalese still live in poverty.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also widened income inequality. Restrictions and a nightly curfew have hurt the informal economy upon which many workers depend. In 2020, Senegal saw riots between young men and the police. Ousmane Sonko is a populist figure who has a strong following among the country’s youth and who constantly rails against the Senegalese elite, accusing them of systemic corruption.
French businesses have been targeted because France is seen as standing behind President Macky Sall and because of France’s perceived stranglehold on the economy. Macky Sall has been accused of targeting political rivals in recent years, prompting accusations of political interference.
Auchan, in particular, has come under criticism for using its scale to offer goods at lower prices than local competitors. Although it is nominally a retail business, its low prices mean it effectively acts as a wholesaler too. French businesses and the French government still play an important role in Senegal’s economy. More generally, some voters in Senegal (and also in other countries such as Cameroon) dislike the amount of control French businesses have on important aspects of their economy like mobile telephony, construction, transport, retail and distribution and real estate.
For some time, some francophone nations in West Africa have sought to take more control over their CFA franc currency (which is backed by reserves held by France) and to move some of their reserves away from France. France’s Treasury guarantees the CFA franc under a fixed exchange rate dependent on the deposit of 50% of its reserves in the French central bank. Senegal’s currency is the West African franc, which is also used by Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, and Togo. Macky Sall broadly supports the continued use of the CFA franc, which opposition figures consider as a form of economic colonialism.
Senegalese voters are also suspicious of Macky Sall’s possible intentions to remain in office. Sall came to power in 2012 on a wave of popular support after his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade’s third-term bid triggered mass protests. Sall’s election win was widely seen as a victory for regional democracy and the peaceful transition of power, still relatively rare in sub-Saharan Africa. Senegalese presidents are limited to two consecutive terms. In 2016, however, Sall launched a constitutional review possibly with a view to running again. If he does, it will almost certainly cause significant unrest in the country.