Eternal Plight France in Search of a New Africa Policy

By Andreas Mehler

Part 2: The Colonial Legacy


Because of its formal and informal channels of influence, France is often perceived as a former colonial power that has only reluctantly conceded the real independence of its “holdings” decades after their legal independence. Sarkozy apparently wants to jettison this ballast, and it is precisely here that France has a chance for a fresh start. Sarkozy has unambiguously stated that democracy is the proper form of government in Africa, parting ways with his predecessor, Chirac, who described it as a “luxury” on the continent.5 Chirac never denied being an adherent of an old model of what was derisively called L’Afrique à Papa. Even so, Sarkozy is proceeding at an alarmingly slow pace: Does the new president, with his reference to the “maturity” of his African partners, intend to take no responsibility in terms of development assistance or questions of colonial liability?

Between 2005 and 2007 France became embroiled in a heated debate over colonial memory. Legislative changes proposed by the conservative majority in the French National Assembly wanted the “positive role of the French presence abroad” recognized in schoolbooks. Because the amendment dealt primarily with the “Algerian French,” who began returning to France under difficult conditions in 1962, reactions were especially indignant in northern Africa. Even south of the Sahara, intellectuals like the Cameroonian Achille Mbembe also chimed in and used the debate to compare the treatment of immigrants today with the handling of colonial “subjects” of the past.6

In the end, the French Constitutional Council scuttled the controversial phrasing of the law in early 2006. Sarkozy stated briefly that he respected the “necessary duty of memory.”7 However, he argued that colonization should not be equated with slavery. He posed the rhetorical question whether France was obliged to issue visas for life on the grounds of a common chapter in history.8 For many, this statement was too little, for others, too much. In late July of 2006, the public was again treated to a strange mixture of self-accusation and colonial apologia at the University of Dakar, in Senegal. Evoking great pathos, Sarkozy recalled the common destiny of Africa and France: “France has not forgotten the African blood spilled for its liberty.”9

Immigration and Integration

As Chirac’s interior minister, Sarkozy pursued illegal immigration more vigorously than any of his predecessors. He now intends to pass a law that would replace “immigration by default” (immigration subie) with “immigration by choice” (immigration choisie). About 10 percent of the adult population in France was not born within its borders, compared with 12.5 percent in Germany and Austria, and 22.4 percent in Switzerland.10 At first glance, this figure does not seem dramatic, yet two additional factors make immigration a hot issue. The first is that according to estimates, there are up to 500,000 sans-papiers, or illegal immigrants, living in France. They include a disproportionately large percentage of Africans, even though Africans, all told, make up only one-third of all immigrants. Secondly, France has a ghetto problem. In 2005 and 2006 a number of streets in the suburbs of Paris were set ablaze.

Sarkozy is pursuing a policy of strong word and firm hand. The son of Hungarian immigrants feels not only called upon to implement a strict immigration policy, but also especially well suited to do so. His policy includes a plan to educate more Africans in France and then send them back to participate in reconstruction efforts in their home countries. There is even talk of not taxing the money African guest workers earn legally in France if it is sent home to be invested there -- not least to ensure local prosperity, which should stanch migration flows. These ideas are preventative in nature, but there can be no doubt that Sarkozy intends to eliminate illegal immigration. He has also set quantitative targets for all French prefects for deporting illegal immigrants. Thus he is wielding both the carrot and the stick. Nonetheless, the heated domestic debate, xenophobia, and urban planning failures will continue to haunt France even under his administration. When Sarkozy served as interior minister, a broad spectrum of the African media branded him an enemy of the people. He will have no easy time correcting this image.

French Generals

France’s distinct Africa policy developed during the Cold War and created a system supported by the secret service, the military, political parties, and industry. It is a system that is often incorrectly viewed as a monolithic bloc. The military’s role is rarely discussed. After a long period of restraint in the late 1990s, France once again became involved militarily with its 2002 operation in Ivory Coast. Although, at the time, it quickly sought UN backing for its Opération Licorne, it spared itself the trouble in 2006 when the governments of Chad and Central African Republic came under increasing pressure from attacking rebel groups. In these countries Paris deployed Mirage fighter jets without conferring with parliament or consulting with the European Union, the African Union (AU) or the UN -- it simply cited existing treaties.

Such unilateral military adventures are expensive for France and highly controversial. But, so deeply involved as it is in Africa, France will have difficulty withdrawing. France’s decision in 2005 to reduce the number of its African military bases to four -- Djibouti (2,900 soldiers), Senegal (1,130), Ivory Coast (700) and Gabon (850) -- is likely to have wide-ranging ramifications. France apparently wants to replace the forces prépositionnées with short-term foreign deployments. But what framework will it favor: the EU, UN, or NATO?

Its model project in this regard is RECAMP (Renforcement des capacités africaines en maintien de la paix), a program launched in 1998 whose goal is to increase peacekeeping potential for -- and in cooperation with -- the African Union, using traditional training measures and joint maneuvers. Paris has praised the program and is seeking financial contributions from its European partners. However, it still seems little inclined to integrate RECAMP into the European Union as an instrument of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). That said, it remains unclear whether the smaller countries of the European Union would support integration since they would probably suspect the extension of a colonial policy of influence at their expense. Instead of becoming involved in RECAMP, many German decision-makers advocate a “battle group” concept, which would also be relevant for Africa, within the framework of the European Union. This would eliminate suspicions among third parties of a German-French agreement, particularly since Great Britain would also be on board, as well as other smaller countries. These two concepts do not contradict each other. The first addresses African peacekeeping, the second European peacekeeping (in Africa). Moreover, the quality of RECAMP training is considered very high. What is revealing, though, is the distrust that the French initiatives have encountered in the rest of Europe. It is also noteworthy that France has attached little importance to civil crisis prevention -- in fact, it has not even begun a real discussion on the issue.

Thus the French commitment to peace in Africa has a military bias that can only be understood from a historical perspective. Many French generals have had at least one posting in Africa during their careers. Their influence in Paris should not be underestimated, and they will probably continue to have an interest in an “African playground.” France was regarded locally as the most visible driving force behind the Artemis mission in eastern Congo and the EUFOR mission to safeguard elections in DRC -- both carried out in the framework of CSDP. This was definitely Paris’s intention, and highly problematic at the same time. After all, early on France backed Congo’s incumbent president Laurent-Desiré Kabila, which made it nearly impossible to convince the local population that the European operation was neutral. Europeanization à la française can become especially problematic when the former colonial power’s local reputation is bad -- particularly due to past military operations. It will thus be interesting to see how visible the military remains in France’s future engagements in Africa.

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