France Africa relations: Le Grand Divorce? By Nicholas Norbrook
Informal networks and unscrutinised presidential authority have shaped France’s Africa policy for decades. The last time a socialist politician won the presidency – François Mitterrand (1981-1995) – he promised to radically shake up France-Africa relations, as did President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012). It is now President François Hollande’s turn to try to push for good governance and to normalise relations with France’s former colonies.
Tricolores, alongside Algerian and Syrian flags, billowed over Place de la Bastille on 6 May, a historic ground zero for global revolutionaries and a happy stamping ground for France’s left. The election of the Socialist candidate to the Elysée raises hopes in Africa too. Perhaps this time there will be a definitive break with the past, an end to the nebulous and opaque net- works of what has become known as Françafrique. Perhaps.
The main charge against France is that it froze the political evolution of its former colonies, even as it gave them independence (see timeline). Proof of the perennity of the system: President Nicolas Sarkozy supported the attempt to shoe horn Karim Wade, son of the increasingly autocratic Abdoulaye Wade, into the Senegalese presidency. France’s foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie offered French police training to the thugs of Presid- ent Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. This attempt by a French minister to stop the Arab Spring in its tracks – by a minister who had been accepting largesse from her Tunisian counter- parts – is the latest stain on France’s conscience.
And this political freeze has led to arrested development. On many metrics, Francophone African countries lag behind their continental peers. French-speaking Africa represents 19% of sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product, whereas English-speaking Africa represents around a half – and that is excluding South Africa. Of the 187 countries ranked by the United Nations Development Programme’s human development index, seven of the 10 worst performers are Francophone countries. Burundi, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the last three on that list. France gets 60% of the uranium it uses for its world-beating nuclear industry from Africa – including Niger.
CÉLLULE AFRICAINE NO MORE
Not everyone agrees. Côte d’ Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara told The Africa Report: “If you take Francophone countries of the CFA franc zone, I think that the situation is actually much better than many Anglophone countries. There has been a real mastering of inflation, which really is a cancer for the poor. There has been strong growth. Perhaps the populations of these countries did not get as fair a share of this growth as they should have.”
Regardless of the debate over how far Francophone Africa has been hamstrung by its former colonial master, the question going forward is can Hollande end Françafrique? During his campaign Hollande claimed, like Sarkozy before him, that there would be a ‘rupture’ with “the old habits of Françafrique”.
But Kader Arif, a Socialist member of the European Parliament and Hollande’s advisor on development mat- ters, says that the change will be radical. “We will get rid of the cellule africaine, place African affairs under the Minister of Foreign Affairs and give parliament anoversightrole.”This is a positive sign: the personalisation of politics under Elysée secretary general Jacques Foccart allowed for clientelism to flourish.
And there are signs that Hollande will be tougher on corruption. Addressing members of Amnesty International and Oxfam, his defence spokesman Jean-Yves Le Drian has said Hollande will impose tighter controls on arms sales. French company Thompson-CSF (now Thales) was involved in a troubled South African arms deal of 1999.
Another of Hollande’s advisors is William Bourdon of Sherpa, a non-govern- mental organisation formed by lawyers that took three Central African lead- ers to court – Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, the late Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville – in March 2007. The investigators behind the ‘biens mal acquis’ affair demand that these presidents account for their endless lists of properties and bank accounts in France. Eva Joly, the 2012 presidential candidate for the Europe Écologie-Les Verts party and the former investigative magistrate who brought down the national oil company Elf in the 1990s, may well receive a role in government.
NOT JUST ANY REGIME
The ties that bind France’s political elite to the Françafrique system run deep. Eyebrows were raised when Laurent Fabius, a potential future foreign minister for Hollande, made trips to see the presidents of Gabon, Togo and Benin between December 2011 and this February. Contacted for this article, Fabius declined to comment. For Jean-Christophe Rufin, France’s former ambassador to Senegal under Sarkozy, this sent all the wrong signals, “as if the bad old habits have come back”.
“Not at all,” said Arif. “We will not work with just any regime, and it’s not only the candidate [François Hollande]who is saying this but it is a collective expression of will. Those regimes that are not moving in the direction of democracy shouldn’t be frequented.” He went on to explain the importance of opening France to non-traditional partners including South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria.
Kofi Yamgnane, a Franco-Togolese politician now running Africa relations for Hollande, is a connection to the days of the late President François Mitterrand. The last time the Socialists had the presidency, there was a similar great hope for change in Franco-African relations that was quickly dashed. On discovering how Elf showered the French political class with money, Mitterrand did not close down the system but just insisted the Parti Socialiste receive its cut. His son, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, or ‘Papa m’a dit’ (Papa told me) as he came to be known, was good friends with the son of Charles Pasqua, a key player in President Jacques Chirac’s Africa policy. Both sons would be caught up in the Angolagate affair, the illegal sale of arms to Angola.
President Sarkozy did not appear to remove himself from the shadowy net- works of years past. Pascaline Bongo, who ran her father’s finances, sat in the front row at Sarkozy’s investiture as candidate, next to the financiers of his…
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