France needs Africa, more than Africa needs France

Before Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in 2007, he made clear he wanted to break with France’s old way of doing business in Africa – a cosy blend of post-colonial corruption and patronage known as “Françafrique” that suited a fair few African dictators and the French establishment alike.

He made the same point during his first visit to the continent.

“The old pattern of relations between France and Africa is no longer understood by new generations of Africans, or for that matter by public opinion in France. We need to change the pattern of relations between France and Africa if we want to look at the future together,” Sarkozy said in South Africa early last year.

African countries have taken notice, especially with growing Chinese,  U.S. economic and security interests. This hasn’t gone well with France:

The tensions with certain African presidents overshadow a more important issue: France’s dependence upon Africa as a validation of its geopolitical clout. What is called Francophone Africa stretches from the deserts in the north down into central Africa. But France’s ability — and willingness — to expend financial resources and maintain influence in Africa has declined in recent years.

France always has backed up its claim that it is a leading power in world affairs by wielding influence in Africa. France has had access to Africa due to its former colonial presence on the continent: influence with a host of African countries increases Paris’ dominance over vast natural resources, sea-lanes and markets. However, over the last few decades, this influence has declined as the United States has pushed into African affairs and the state of the French economy has limited Paris’ ability to finance African policy objectives.

Now, Paris has a greater need to appear powerful because of its apparent inability to stop a U.S. war on Iraq. But rather than appearing more politically potent, France instead looks more and more desperate. The country’s desperation over its apparent global impotence could lead Paris to adopt more radical policies in the coming days. And the one place it still has the ability — albeit limited — to project power is Africa.

Therefore, in the next few days France will try to find ways to strengthen its position on the continent — especially in oil-rich places like Cameroon, Gabon and Algeria — while simultaneously weakening its rivals. France has a long history of intervention and involvement in Africa, and its role there has bolstered its claims that it is a peer of other major European and global powers.

Because it cannot compete economically with the United States, it will rely on political-security levers to reaffirm its geopolitical status. The geopolitical imperative for increased French activity in Africa is this: Once the United States expands control over Middle Eastern governments — and oil supplies — Paris will need to make sure that it is not dependent upon those energy sources and can influence supplies elsewhere. Because of its economic constraints, there are few places other than Africa where France can compete globally. Moreover, a number of African governments — like that in Cameroon or Gabon — continue to rely on French political-security cooperation for their survival.

France has long coveted its ties with its former colonies in Africa as its influence waned elsewhere, clinging to them as a sign of prestige and as part of the Gaullist doctrine that dominated French foreign policy for the latter half of the 20th century. At the beginning of the 21st century, France is finding that its position as patron to Third World countries is becoming untenable due to the increasingly unacceptable political, economic and security-related situations in many of these countries.

French help previously has been indispensable in propping up undemocratic regimes in Central Africa nations, including Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR). Such places have not proven so economically beneficial for France, but Paris nevertheless supported its former colonies, partly out of a sense of obligation and partly for purposes of power projection. Crises in Chad and CAR tend to be self-contained, internal disputes with little regional impact.

French military bases in Africa

France’s consistent offers of military and economic support to the embattled leaders of these countries may now be withdrawn as Sarkozy tightens France’s sphere of influence. He is now focusing on the area around the Mediterranean where France’s core interests lie, including the former colonies of Lebanon and Algeria, where much of France’s non-European population hails from and where France’s colonial ties run deepest.

As part of this pullback, French troops — the mainstay of Cote d’Ivoire’s peacekeeping force — have begun to withdraw after a March 4 peace deal was agreed upon between President Laurent Gbagbo’s government and the leader of the rebel New Forces, Guillaume Soro. With this withdrawal, France will lose a key political and military foothold in West Africa. As French intervention in Central and West Africa becomes increasingly unpopular in France, Paris will continue to concentrate its influence closer to home, leaving French oil companies and NGOs behind to maintain a small French footprint.

Sarkozy’s ‘no meddling’ policy
Gradually over the years, Paris has been reducing its presence in Africa in the political, military and humanitarian spheres. Defence contracts and their secret clauses have been progressively renegotiated. The African continent is also no longer dependent on French funding, once a main source of influence. It now receives significant sums from the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, while China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner.
A 2007 Sarkozy campaign pledge promised to end French meddling in Africa. “We is not going to get embroiled in disagreements with those who have done us a great service,” proclaimed Claude Guéant, a top advisor to Sarkozy.
“For Nicolas Sarkozy, African affairs boil down to migration issues and drug trafficking, and are not a priority,” says Vincent Hugeux, senior correspondent for French daily L’Express and a specialist on Africa. The fact that Sarkozy delegates the dossier to others, like Guéant, speaks volumes, he says.
But when Jean-Marie Bockel, former minister in charge of cooperation, promised the end of French patronage in Africa in 2008, he earned the ire of Gabon’s late president, Omar Bongo Ondimba. Bongo reportedly relayed his feelings to the French president through his lawyer. Some weeks later, Bockel was replaced by Alain Joyandet, who has no background in African affairs.

Sarkozy is doing nothing different from other world leaders by bringing along a bevy of executives keen to sign deals. France also faces a great deal of competition from China and others in what it used to treat as its “backyard” and is keen to ensure it does not lose out.

France has never managed to stay out of Africa for long. Paris is suspected of supporting Chad’s leader, Idriss Déby Itno, with decisive military and logistical support in 2008 when his administration was under attack by rebels in the east of the country. In August 2009, Joyandet, now Sarkozy’s official Africa advisor, announced in French daily Le Monde  –  a day before Gabonese elections to determine a successor to Bongo  –  that his preferred candidate was the late president’s son, Ali Bongo.
Joyandet’s statement once again called into question claims of French neutrality in the continent’s politics, and fuelled anti-French sentiment among Gabon’s youth. Similar simmerings of resentment rose to the surface in Ivory Coast in 2004 and Togo in 2005 during disputed presidential elections. For all of France’s recent attempts to disengage itself from its African past, the roots of its relationships still run deep.

Franceafrique is changing – but that’s down to emerging domestic middle-classes and civil society demanding increasing openness from their leaders, certainly not because of France.

Transparency is the enemy here. Many Gaullist and Socialist politicians, along with their African allies, would suddenly find their campaign coffers out of pocket if things changed for the better.

Video report sheds more light on French influence in Africa and what Africans think.

This is a continuation from a previous post about France-Africa summit that took place in June.

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