French colonial past casts long shadow over policy in Africa

THE TWO SIDES: Demonstrations in Paris held recently in support of Alassane Ouattara and his foe Laurent Gbagbo.

THE TWO SIDES: Demonstrations in Paris held recently in support of Alassane Ouattara and his foe Laurent Gbagbo.   | Photo Credit: BERTRAND LANGLOIS

Is it a case of harking back to the old policy of ‘Françafrique'?

President Nicolas Sarkozy, having suddenly engaged France in shooting wars in Libya and Ivory Coast, seems to be harking back to the old days of French African policy, sometimes known as Françafrique, when Paris and its army dictated politics in its former colonies and reaped economic rewards.

French troops and helicopters were vital in bringing the drama in Abidjan to a close, striking the heavy weapons and presidential palace of the defeated Ivory Coast presidential candidate Laurent Gbagbo and making possible his arrest. And France has been the country that has pushed hardest for intervention in Libya on behalf of the opposition to Col. Muammar el-Qadhafi.

But Mr. Sarkozy and the Foreign Ministry reject the suggestion of a return to colonial reflexes, emphasising that in both cases France acted under a mandate from the United Nations Security Council that authorised the use of force to protect civilians. French officials also point out that Libya was an Italian colony, never French; that French troops did not arrest Mr. Gbagbo; and that Paris was slow to understand the depth of the anger in its former protectorate, Tunisia.

Mr. Sarkozy's line for Africa has been “neither interference nor indifference.”

France's colonial empire covered much of North and West Africa, from Algeria to Ivory Coast. The colonies were gradually granted independence in the 1960s, but France still has troops based in Africa and close business, political, linguistic and personal ties to its former colonies, which as a whole give France more importance in the world.

Accusations persist

Accusations persist of France taking sides to make new presidents or overthrow old ones, of illegal political contributions and payoffs, of parallel but separate policies run by the Élysée and the Quai d'Orsay.

The newspapers, for instance, have depicted the friendship of Mr. Sarkozy's former wife, Cécilia, with the French wife of Gbagbo rival Alassane Ouattara, and Mr. Gbagbo played heavily on anti-French sentiment in his effort to retain power.

The French newspaper Libération said of Ivory Coast that “even if wrapped in a U.N. resolution and supported by countries in the region, this French mission resembles the interventions of the past and risks being seen as such by young Africans.” Fifty years after African independence, the paper said, France has “found itself anew on the front line in a continent to which Nicolas Sarkozy promised a ‘renewed' relationship, the end of old privileges and a military disengagement.”

Achille Mbembé, a Cameroonian-born historian and critic of French involvement in Ivory Coast, said that France continued to support African dictators, mentioning the leaders of Gabon, Cameroon, Congo, Chad and Togo. He saw “a continuity in the management of Françafrique — this system of reciprocal corruption, which, since the end of colonial occupation, ties France to its African henchmen.”

Albert Bourgi, a professor of law and brother of Robert Bourgi, a lawyer who helped manage African matters for France for Jacques Chirac and his successors, wrote in Le Monde that Ivory Coast “reawakens the memory, sometimes damning, of numerous excesses of French African policy between 1960 and today.”

He recalled the words of Louis de Guiringaud, a former foreign minister, who said in 1978, “Africa is the only region of the world where France can take itself for a great power, capable of changing the course of history with 500 men.”

But other historians and analysts suggest that Mr. Sarkozy was sincere when he said that his African policy would emphasise partnership and not paternalism, and note that he does not share the same ties to Africa as his predecessors, in particular Mr. Chirac and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, infamous for a scandal over African diamonds allegedly received as a gift.

‘No nostalgia for ex-colonies'

“Sarkozy has no nostalgia for the former colonies, and I believe there has not been any real change in his African policy,” said Antoine Glaser, former editor-in-chief of Lettre du Continent, an African newsletter, and co-author of “Sarko in Africa” and “How France Lost Africa.” He added: “The policy is still marked by realpolitik and pragmatism. For Sarkozy, it's much more the political, diplomatic and geostrategic opportunities of the moment.”

Stephen W. Smith, former Africa editor of Le Monde, co-author with Mr. Glaser and now an instructor at Duke University, said that France was not returning to the period of Françafrique, which largely ended in the mid-1990s and was most closely associated with Jacques Foccart, who ran Africa for Charles de Gaulle.

‘More a nuisance than asset'

“Sarkozy is not interested in Africa, but sees it as more of a nuisance than an asset,” Mr. Smith said. Africa is important for energy and France's self-image, he said, but French presence and influence in its former colonies are much reduced with generational and political change. As the long Gaullist period ended in France, so did the reign of the early African fathers of independence, most of them French-trained or empowered, and democracy has loosened what were effectively partnerships.

“Françafrique was a Franco-African construction,” Mr. Smith said, “a deal struck with African leaders who knew what they were doing.” With time and politics, he said, the deal degraded into corruption, secret political financing and more personal ties. “Foccart guaranteed a continuity impossible in France today and the African fathers of independence were in power a long time,” he said. “When you started to have more democracy and alternation in power, the system fell apart.”

Today, France has little corporate involvement in the main economic pillars of Ivory Coast, cocoa, coffee and oil, Mr. Smith said. In the 1980s, there were 50,000 French expatriates in Ivory Coast; now the number is 12,000, of whom at least 7,000 are dual nationals.

France is visible in construction, electricity and telecommunications, but has bigger investments in non-Francophone Africa. In Ivory Coast, France ranks only fifth in import-export totals, while Nigeria is first.

Still, French businessmen are investing all over Africa, and many feel a tie to a French-speaking former colonial empire. But the special French mix of accusation and guilt over African colonialism is a kind of relic, Mr. Smith said.

“In the period of Françafrique, there were very few dissident voices in France,” Mr. Smith said. “There is a kind of rediscovery, a soul-searching exercise that is also an exercise in identity. Many French don't look at Africa as it is, but at themselves, as a mirror effect, mostly as a villain, but sometimes as a help.”

But on the left and the right, Mr. Smith said, “the centrepiece is always France.” In a straitened French media world, too, he said, which can afford fewer foreign correspondents, “the presence of the people of Africa dwindles.”

Libya and Ivory Coast represent, then, a kind of “caricature of Françafrique,” said the Socialist legislator François Loncle. But as Mr. Glaser said, “So long as France has soldiers deployed on African soil, the ambiguity will last.”— © New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2020 2:23:24 AM |

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