PARIS, (Reuters) – Burkina Faso medical student Alfred Nikiema lit up as he read an email from his university allowing him to resume visa paperwork for training at a French hospital next year – a move that has been in limbo since France suspended consular services in his country.
Hundreds of students, researchers and artists with upcoming professional trips to France that can take months of planning have been uncertain about getting their visas due to deteriorating relations with France following coups in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger over the past three years.
The juntas that seized power have turned against former colonial power France, kicking out its troops and ambassadors amid growing anti-French sentiment.
Critics of France say it has sought to maintain excessive economic and political influence decades after the countries gained independence. France says it has moved away from this dynamic.
But as relations with some of the West African states turned bitter – prompting France to close its consular services in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger due to security concerns – long-standing cultural ties have also been strained.
The visa issue and the suspension of French development aid and cooperation with the three countries comes as President Emmanuel Macron seeks to reset ties with its former colonies in Africa amid competition for influence from Russia and China.
Last year, France issued 907 student and trainees visas for Burkina Faso nationals, 689 to Malians and 436 to Nigeriens seeking to study or intern in the country, according to a French diplomatic source.
But this year, students, doctors, artists and business people from the three West Africa Sahel states that have had access to education and work experience in France for decades are having to re-think their plans and risk losing a year in the process.
Nikiema had almost given up his dream of spending a year in France for his mandatory psychiatry specialisation and resolved to doing his internship in a Burkina Faso hospital instead.
“Being able to go to another country and have different experience is enriching,” he said.
International law student Tondri Yara stood in front of a French visa centre in the capital Ouagadougou, hoping for some good news.
The 28-year-old had been preparing his exchange programme at a university campus in France since October 2022.
“At the last minute you can’t get a visa. It takes a lot of energy to change plans,” he said.
Yara has other options for his thesis, which he was meant to do in France. Burkina Faso, Canada, Switzerland and Belgium are all viable alternatives, he said, although switching will likely delay the process.
French authorities have assured that students, artists and researchers already in France remain welcome and would be allowed to pursue their activities.
There were over 3,100 students from Mali, 2,300 from Burkina and 1,100 from Niger studying in French public institutions in 2021-22, according to data from French agency Campus France that promotes French higher institutions abroad.