Eternal Plight France in Search of a New Africa Policy

France’s Africa policies have always attracted more attention than those of other European states. In the run-up to the 2007 election, Nicolas Sarkozy indicated that he planned to “normalize” France’s special relations with the continent. Yet as president, he has so far refrained from major changes.
Von Andreas Mehler

France is currently redefining its Africa policy. During Jacques Chirac’s 1995-2007 presidency, France’s policy toward the continent was sharply criticized in France, Africa, and many EU member states. It was seen as strongly aligned with the interests of powerful lobbies and disconnected from the rest of Europe. Critics charged that Paris’s currency policy toward its former colonies was disproportionately influential and they considered Chirac’s approach too militarized and politically retrograde.

France’s Africa policy has shown considerable continuity since it began decades ago under Charles de Gaulle. He fought hard for influence in France’s former colonies -- not only to generate support in the global arena, but also to secure privileged access to natural resources and key markets. This profited leading French companies such as Accor, Air France, Bolloré, Bouygues, Elf Aquitaine and, to a lesser degree today, Total. It also benefited the many middlemen who work behind the scenes to influence the ties between politics and industry in both France and Africa.

The military component of France’s Africa policy was important from the start. France has defense and military cooperation agreements with twenty sub-Saharan states. A network of military bases allows France to deploy its troops rapidly to all subregions of the continent. France has, however, steadily reduced military personnel from 60,000 in the past to around 10,000 in early 2007, which has led to less visibility and necessitates greater troop mobility.1

By establishing the CFA franc2 currency zones in central and western Africa during the postwar decades, France long maintained a high level of influence over the currency and financial policies of its former colonies. It meant that former colonies could not devaluate their currency, which effectively left them with no autonomy whatsoever in monetary policy. The CFA franc, pegged to the French franc, was devalued by 50 percent in 1994, provoking angry protests among Africans because it raised the price of imports and hit the middle classes especially hard. The goal of the devaluation -- to increase the international competitiveness of the participating national economies -- was only partially achieved. But France did manage to peg the CFA to the euro when it gave up its own currency in 1999.

Despite reform attempts in the 1990s, this highly interventionist approach has not changed. France often reiterates its intention to “Europeanize” its Africa policy but it has only partially followed up on these pledges. Among the Europeans, France has dominated the diplomatic stage with its Franco-African summits, which first included participants from non-francophone Africa in the 1990s. There was, however, speculation that the Cannes summit in January 2007 would be the last of its kind. Using the Francophone movement and a close-knit network of French cultural institutes, Paris has been eager to secure a place in the minds of the African intellectual elite. Much more important have been its relations to various government leaders and the clear focus on the state level in, for example, its foreign aid policy, which assigns only a marginal role to civil society groups and -NGOs.

Rwanda and Ivory Coast

Two key events in recent history demonstrate the high political and material price of these policies, namely French involvement in the conflicts in Rwanda in 1994 and in Ivory Coast in 2004.

In Rwanda, France provided political and military support for Juvénal Habyarimana’s ethnically exclusive regime until the very end. After Habyarimana’s violent death in April 1994, France did little to stop the genocide of the Tutsi. The military mission it launched, l’Opération Turquoise, allowed many radical militias to escape into neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and continue the war from there. While doubts have justifiably been raised about the integrity of the former rebel movement and the current ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, there is wide agreement that Paris failed to use its substantial influence to restrain the Hutu-dominated regime. A parliamentary fact-finding committee commissioned by the French National Assembly delivered a mixed verdict on the government’s reaction.3 But in Africa and the rest of the world the impression lingered that France was partially to blame for the genocide that claimed the lives of 800,000 people.

In November 2004, French and African TV audiences witnessed French soldiers shooting at black demonstrators in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s capital city. There was also footage of French citizens, some of whom had been living in the country for decades, being run through the city’s streets. The violence was the culmination of a series of military and diplomatic incidents that France was unable to control despite its extensive engagement in the country.

The first of these incidents in the Ivory Coast happened two years earlier, on the morning of September 19, 2002, when armed rebel groups attacked strategic points in Abidjan. Troops loyal to the government soon regained control of the situation in Abidjan, but Ivory Coast’s second-largest city, Bouaké, remained in rebel hands. The insurgents successively secured support in numerous cities in the northern half of the state, beginning the division of the one-time showcase country of francophone Africa. The government of President Laurent Gbagbo called upon Paris to activate the existing defense agreement and mobilize the troops stationed in the country.

France initially viewed the crisis as a domestic Ivorian issue; antipathy for Gbagbo was probably the main motive for Paris’s disinterest. It was not until late October 2002 that French troops were dispatched to secure peace. In negotiations near Paris, the former colonial power brokered a peace that was unacceptable to Gbagbo. The president mobilized a street mob -- and broad swaths of African public opinion -- against France, even though he depended on its military support, at least temporarily. With no prospects for a political solution, France initially kept a force of 4,000 soldiers in the country (Opération Licorne) alongside a UN mission.

On November 4, 2004, the government army attacked diverse rebel positions in a unilateral violation of the cease-fire. Two days later, two aircraft in the Ivorian air force bombed Bouaké and apparently flew a targeted attack on a French camp, killing nine French soldiers and an American citizen. The French counter-attack destroyed the entire Ivorian air force, provoking enraged protests and anti-French rioting in Abidjan. French troops advanced to the vicinity of the presidential palace, which aroused fears that President Gbagbo was going to be violently removed. According to official estimates, 64 people were killed and 1,300 wounded by French bullets in the resulting unrest.4 While the horrible experiences of the fleeing French dominated news programs in France, the government-aligned media in Abidjan showed gruesome images of dead Ivorians. Paris worked intensely and successfully to defuse the situation and to secure the condemnation of the Ivorian government in the diplomatic arena, but it gained little beyond the chance for an orderly retreat.

Both events illustrate the deeper-seated problems in France’s Africa policy, which are now on Sarkozy’s agenda. They include France’s colonial legacy, immigration issues, the power of French generals, France’s unilateral policies, as well as the behind-the-scenes dealings of “Françafrique.”

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.

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.

Future Choices

There are basically two scenarios for the evolution of French policy toward Africa. Combinations are also possible, but we can ultimately expect these scenarios to mark the boundaries within which France’s Africa policy will unfold under the current administration:

Scenario 1: Continuity through Change

France’s Africa policy will remain interventionist, but there will be a shift in focus. Humanitarian activism and a new values-based emotive approach will become the trademark of France’s security policy, which will be formatively influenced by Foreign Minister Kouchner. It will entail a larger number of shorter peacekeeping missions, a relative loss of importance for local military bases but a strongly militarized Africa strategy. In this scenario, France will maintain its privileged relations with a handful of heads of state (in particular Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, Paul Biya of Cameroon, and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo), but these relations will become less visible (a scaling down or discontinuation of the Franco-African summit, fewer trips to Africa by leading French representatives). Relations with difficult representatives of the old policy will come under review (Togo, Chad). Paris’s reservations about broader multilateralism will remain intact. France will only superficially involve the European Union in its policy making, as in the past. If necessary, it will bypass the African Union, engaging instead with subregional organizations. France will continue to discretely expect and support preferential treatment of French companies by influential groups and governments.

Scenario 2: Structural Change

President Sarkozy will largely shape foreign policy himself. France will pursue its Africa policy with a less emotive emphasis and a more effective steering of its own interests. In comparison to other continents, Africa will become markedly less important and it will play a subordinate role to domestic policy issues (e.g. immigration). France will need to reconsider who its most important partners are based on clear geostrategic and economic criteria. This will result in enhanced status for both South Africa and Angola. According to this paradigm, additional gradual military disengagement will start with Ivory Coast, where military bases will be shut down upon completion of Opération Licorne. A number of portfolios, including military training in the framework of RECAMP, will be transferred to the European Union. Limited enthusiasm at the EU level will result in funding gaps for this specific program. Greater responsibility for currency policy may also be transferred to the European Union, which will lead to a further devaluation of the CFA franc. Moreover, official policies will provide much less support for French companies and draw on their existing market advantages. And lastly, costly prestige projects, such as the Franco-African summit, will be abandoned. These top-level meetings will be replaced by other channels, such as cooperation between parliaments and technocratic exchanges.

Outlook for a European Africa Policy

At present, many decision-makers around Europe have deep reservations about cooperating more closely with France on African issues. They are uneasy that, as in the past, they will be asked to play the role of a “junior partner” with no say. If humanitarian interventionism à la Kouchner prevails, France will perhaps be able to mobilize sympathy in a broader European public, but not in the corridors of foreign offices and defense ministries. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation with France would be a great deal easier if Paris were finally to undertake an honest assessment of its own Africa policy. France might have an “objective interest” in, say, joining multilateral initiatives and basing its actions on a European perspective instead of pursuing special bilateral relations. However, the outlook would be all the more promising if France looked beyond its trusty German partner and included other European neighbors in a new European Africa policy. This will succeed best if the approach to the “hot potato” issue of immigration is: sustainable (recognition that a certain level of immigration is unavoidable), humane (immigration modalities must not undermine European constitutional standards), feasible (visas should be issued based on transparent criteria and without bureaucratic delays) and cooperative (African governments and, if needed, local territorial bodies must be included in defining migration regulations). Corrections must be made to previous policy in order to reach these objectives. But such reforms stand in opposition to real French interests in Africa, Europe, and an ambitious French president.

Dr. Andreas Mehler is director of the Institute for African Affairs at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.

1) Not only the forces prépositionnées, but also other soldiers are deployed abroad (in Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic).

2) The CFA franc is used in 12 African countries formerly ruled by the French. It is also the currency in Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea.

3) See “Le Rapport de la Mission d’information parlementaire sur le Rwanda,“ .

4) Based on information that the Ivorian government provided AFP, November 24, 2004.

5) From Sarkozy’s speech, “Politique de la France en Afrique,” found at: .

6) “La France et l’Afrique: Décoloniser sans s’auto-décoloniser” Le Messager (Douala, Cameroon), September 27, 2005.

7) Sarkozy speech, “Politique de la France en Afrique,” (see fn. 5).

8) Interview in Jeune Afrique, November 5–11, 2006.

9) Sarkozy speech, “Politique de la France en Afrique,” (see fn. 5).

10) Data from Jeune Afrique, March 4–10, 2007.

11) According to Ronja Kempin, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, in an interview with the author on October 25, 2005.

12) Interview in Jeune Afrique, November 5–11, 2006. A similar view was expressed in Le Monde on February 2, 2007.

13) Information from Jeune Afrique, February 11-17, 2007.

14) Sarkozy speech, “Politique de la France en Afrique,” (see fn. 5).

15) Press communiqué, “La responsabilité sociale et environnementale d’Areva est mise en cause par Sherpa, Médecins du Monde et CRIIRAD,”

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