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.

By Andreas Mehler

French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited South African President Thabo Mbeki in February.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited South African President Thabo Mbeki in February.

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.”


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