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France Targets Russian, Wagner Disinformation in Africa

FILE - A demonstrator holds a Russian flag in during a rally in support of Russia's and China's presence in the Central African Republic, in the capital Bangui, March 22, 2023.

PARIS/DAKAR — After armed men killed nine Chinese nationals at a gold mine in Central African Republic in March, a video circulated on the internet saying France had secretly ordered the attack and planned to discredit Russian mercenary group Wagner in the country.

In the video, a Central African Republic rebel fighter says "the French want to drive Wagner out of Africa."

The clip rang alarm bells in Paris at a media monitoring unit within the foreign ministry created last year as part of a broad diplomatic strategy to revive ties in France's former African colonies after years of waning influence.

The foreign ministry said the unit quickly traced the video to a cluster of Facebook and Twitter accounts with links to Russian disinformation, including from the Wagner Group — an outfit close to the Kremlin that has troops in Ukraine and has fought on the side of several governments in Africa.

The video was an example of a growing Russian influence campaign that amplifies criticisms of France - and presents Moscow as an ally in Central and West Africa, two diplomats at France's foreign ministry said. The ministry denied any French role in the mine attack.

Russian propaganda has found fertile ground in Africa among grievances over France's decades-old track record of military intervention and heavy-handed diplomacy, officials said.

Reuters spoke to more than a dozen French officials who described France's increasingly urgent efforts to counter Moscow's influence, which Paris believes undermines a long-term diplomatic effort aimed at overcoming the past - and how it is perceived in Africa.

In coordination with the French state's service for Vigilance and Protection against Foreign Digital Interference (Viginum), the unit has mapped about 100 Russian- or Wagner-linked accounts putting out anti-French content, according to the two diplomats, who are involved in the initiative and requested anonymity to speak freely. Reuters was not able to independently confirm details of the accounts.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told parliament this month that anti-French sentiment in Africa could partly be blamed on "hostile actors, coming notably from Russia."

Russia and Wagner have a track record of media manipulation and disinformation, which Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has admitted to. The European Union sanctioned Wagner in February for alleged rights abuses and spreading disinformation, including in Africa.

In May, Russia's foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said France had been interfering in African nations' internal affairs for decades, toppling leaders it objected to and building "a neo-colonial system of influence." In contrast, she said, Russia did not interfere in other countries' affairs.

On June 13, France said it had uncovered a mass Russian-linked disinformation campaign targeting the foreign ministry and French media, involving some of the same accounts and actors seen in its Africa monitoring activities. Russia did not publicly respond to the allegation.

However, not all anti-French feeling in Africa can be blamed on Moscow. Analysts point to French military campaigns that have caused civilian deaths, and many critical social media statements reflect genuine concerns over France's outsized role in African affairs.

Some criticisms "are true," French President Emmanuel Macron told Reuters in Kinshasa at the end of a four-day central African tour in March, referring to the allegation France had continued to carry colonial attitudes even after independence in West Africa.

"We are no longer there to be the substitute for a coup d'etat or a failing political process," Macron said.

The French media monitoring unit emerged last July, the same month that Paris withdrew thousands of troops from Mali, a former colony in West Africa. A similar pull-out followed in neighboring Burkina Faso at the start of this year - steps prompted in part by military coups and the presence of Wagner mercenaries in the region.

The new team shares its information with embassies, other French ministries, intelligence agencies and France's media regulator.

In many cases, including the Central African Republic video, the unit advises against responding directly, especially when the content does not appear to be gaining much traction.

Other times, it identifies which users are most active and takes the information to social media companies including Facebook and Twitter, alerting them to trolls and fake accounts, two of the diplomats said.

Sometimes, its work helps the French state respond. When a video titled "French humiliation" emerged in December 2022 showing a man falsely portrayed as a French envoy being expelled from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the unit prepared a point-by-point response showing that the man was not a French diplomat.

Days later, the French embassy in Kinshasa issued the response in a series of statements to local and foreign media. Anne-Sophie Ave, then ambassador for French public diplomacy in Africa, reacted on Twitter, calling it "fake news."

"The gentleman in the video is not our ambassador to the DRC," Ave stated.

Wagner, the Kremlin and the government of Central African Republic did not respond to requests for comment for this story.