Eternal Plight France in Search of a New Africa Policy

By Andreas Mehler

Part 3: France's Unilateralism

It is not only in security policy that France seems to play the European card only when it believes it can control the process. An important secondary element has always been the European “burden-sharing” of costly engagements. So far this has had little to do with the transfer of real power. One of the problems facing German-French relations is that, on the west side of the Rhine actions are rarely grounded in values. The Africans responsible for grave human rights abuses find considerably more sympathy in France than elsewhere in Europe. This has been true for some time of the leadership of Sudan, and it also appears to be true of Zimbabwe. It would be helpful if France would just once join initiatives sponsored by other EU member states.11

Even so, there are experts in both France and Germany who see an extensive Europeanization of Africa policy as problematic. For one, shifting responsibility to Brussels could remove Africa policy from the scrutiny of a critical public. EU member state governments can be held to account more easily at home than at the EU level (even though the French president has tremendous foreign policy powers compared to a powerless parliament). There are fears in Germany that transferring responsibility for Africa policy to the European Union might serve to conceal France’s post-colonial endeavors (as well as those of Portugal, Belgium, and Great Britain). At the same time, there is no denying that it is often difficult to motivate EU member states to shoulder responsibility in Africa.

Shying away from responsibility has seldom been a problem in the case of France. A more problematic point is its difficult ties to the African Union, exemplified by the strained relationship between Chirac and Alpha Oumar Konaré, president of the AU Commission. The initiative to resolve the Darfur crisis, launched by the new foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, was initially not discussed with the African Union, which has troops stationed in the region. As a result, the Paris Darfur Conference on June 25 turned into a diplomatic disaster. In the end, a joint diplomatic solution was found elsewhere. The related UN resolution, which was jointly introduced by France, Great Britain, and the United States, cleverly took up French initiatives by integrating the AU mission into a joint UN-AU operation. But France continued to try to carry out its own plan to secure the border zones between Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic. Despite unanimous backing in the UN Security Council for a 4,000-man force in September 2007, this plan did not make many friends. NGOs openly questioned whether a troop dominated by France could be regarded as neutral in its former colonies and it was only with great difficulty that approximately 3,500 troops were raised in the European Union by mid-January 2008 for the mission, including 2,100 from France itself. This caused a considerable delay of the mission that should have started in November 2007.

France’s use of influence in this way to create a multilateral fig leaf for its old politics of interest promotion will presumably continue in the future. The reason is that nobody in the European Union wishes to openly oppose la Grande Nation on Africa. However, given Sarkozy’s surprising offers to Libya’s leader Muammar el-Qaddafi -- ranging from nuclear technology to arms deliveries -- it is unlikely that the European Union will be spared more such problematic French ventures in Africa in the future.

Behind-the-Scenes Dealings?

The phenomenon of Françafrique -- the exploitation of close ties between African and French elites to create discrete agreements in their mutual interest -- has strongly influenced discussions in France and Germany. Further, European decision-makers often lament that it is nearly impossible to establish a stronger economic and political presence in francophone Africa. For decades, French officials enjoyed declaring that France’s chasse gardée includes nearly half the continent. However, aggressive Chinese companies have now managed to get a foothold in Africa, even in its francophone states. After Sarkozy attempted to downplay Africa’s economic significance to the country (“In economic terms, we don’t need Africa”),12 the journal Jeune Afrique did its own research, which revealed the continents growing importance for French foreign trade: in 2005, Africa (including its northern states) accounted for 5.1 percent of foreign commerce. Since France has a positive balance of trade with Africa, this data does not look all that bad. For a few major companies such as Bolloré or Peugeot, Africa represents over 20 percent of all foreign business. The Accor hotel group, the Castel breweries, the energy company Vivendi, and telecommunication giants like Alcatel and France Télécom all do brisk business on the continent, and would be hard hit if it declined.13 Alongside Ivory Coast and Cameroon, countries beyond the boundaries of the French pré-carré, or exclusive domain—including South Africa, Angola, and Nigeria—are among France’s most important partners south of the Sahara. This means that France has solid economic interests in Africa, even if these are not comparable to those on other continents.

What policy will the new conservative government pursue in Africa? Sarkozy has openly criticized the “networks from another time,”14 but he maintains the best relations with several major puppet masters of the Africa industry: when taking time off after his electoral victory, he relaxed on the yacht of Vincent Bolloré, the French investor with huge railway holdings in Africa. Gabon’s president Omar Bongo, the embodiment of Franco-African machinations, is one of Sarkozy’s best contacts, and he was also one of the first people to visit the new president. The key question is whether Sarkozy will continue to allow the most important decisions on Africa policy to be made by special interests in a cellule africaine at the Elysée Palace. This is how his predecessors ran their administrations, regularly overriding the technocratic workflow of issue-related policy making in specialized departments. For the time being Sarkozy is sticking to a similar, well-equipped apparatus, but its director, Bruno Joubert, no longer has direct access to the president. He must first go to his superior, the diplomatic advisor Jean-David Levitte. It remains to be seen whether this will bring any appreciable change. Joubert is considered highly distrustful of the self-appointed middlemen from the “Franco-African village.” But this did not prevent Sarkozy from traveling to France’s former colonies, including Senegal and Gabon, on his first Africa trip as president, in the latter case apparently bowing to the demands of doyen Bongo.

When the AREVA energy group was threatened with the loss of business in Niger, Sarkozy became personally involved. Forty-three percent of the uranium produced by AREVA, which has depleted the French reserves, comes from the impoverished country, and the price of uranium is rising on the international market. The French nuclear group calls the shots in the desert town of Arlit. While there are signs that workers have been exposed to significant levels of radiation, there is little evidence.15 When the government in Niamey declared the local AREVA director to be persona non grata and offered licenses to Chinese companies, AREVA immediately increased royalties to avert worse consequences. Events such as these raise doubts that France will change its policy toward Africa.

EU Africa Strategy

In December 2005, EU member states reached consensus on both development issues and an EU Africa strategy that will apply to the Union as well as all member states individually. The European Union will initially combine all of its existing initiatives, including the Cotonou Agreement; the MEDA Program with North Africa; and the Trade, Development, and Cooperation Agreement with South Africa. It will also strengthen intra-European coordination. The new strategy transcends the traditional scope of development cooperation and covers, among other things, military operations. At least theoretically, the European Union now has a joint Africa policy, but implementation will take time. The EU strategy has created a foundation for the more in-depth negotiations currently underway with the African Union. The EU strategy should restrict the freedoms of French and other national officials responsible for shaping Africa policy. While it is definitely conceivable that Paris will subordinate itself to shared objectives in the field of development aid, this is unlikely in most other key policy fields. Still, Sarkozy is vigorously pursuing the idea of a joint EU consular service to issue visas for the Schengen area of open borders. Progress is possible here, especially under the French presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2008.


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