France has never really let go of its African colonies, nor have those colonies ever really let go of France. It’s a tangled, poisonous relationship that is under increased scrutiny as France elects its next leader. But, despite firmly stated plans to stop meddling in Africa, will either of the two major presidential candidates really cut loose the last vestiges of the French empire? Simon Allison suspects not, but argues that this may no longer be France’s decision to make.
Even when they’re in French, words are a pretty good reflection of behaviour. Let’s take this one: Françafrique, a term that has come to symbolise France’s relationship with Africa. It’s in French, obviously, reflecting the language in which business is conducted between France and its former African colonies.
It’s actually a mash-up of two words, Français and Afrique, which again is appropriate. Unlike Britain, France didn’t attempt to keep its colonies at arms’ length, instead trying to integrate them so fully into the country that at one point Algeria had the legal status of a French province. But, crucially, the relationship is dominated by France, hence the translation: French Africa rather than African France.
Even after Africa’s French-speaking countries obtained their independence, France wielded a disproportionate amount of power on the continent: toppling governments, influencing government decisions and dictating monetary policy through its control of west and central Africa’s regional banks. As one advisor to former President Giscard D’Estaing commented, Africa was “the sole continent where France could still, with 500 men, change the course of history”.
Not all that much has changed. Last year, a small number of French special forces troops helped the militias aligned with Alassane Ouattara defeat Laurent Gbagbo’s troops, in the process installing Ouattara as president of Côte d’Ivoire.
Monetary policy is still dictated to a disturbing degree by Paris: the Central African Franc, different versions of which are used in much of west and central Africa, was a French brainchild, and its establishment came with certain strings attached. For example, each of the 14 member states is required to keep 65% of its foreign reserves with the French Treasury, which invests them on Africa’s behalf. Credit facilities related to the currency and the regional banks which administer it are controlled by the French Treasury, giving France an unhealthy say in how African countries use their own money.
But France is not all to blame. Some of the African presidents concerned – knowing that having a protector like France is essential to maintaining their own power – have deliberately sought French state patronage, dispensing a little personal patronage to French officials in return. One of last year’s biggest scandals in France involved the former head of the foreign ministry’s Africa office, who revealed that he had personally witnessed suitcases of cash given to various foreign ministers by various African governments.
Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy, things were meant to be different. One of his campaign pledges before his 2007 election victory was to reform the relationship between France and Africa, a pledge he reiterated once in office: “The old pattern of relations between France and Africa is no longer understood by new generations of Africans, or for that matter by public opinion in France. We need to change the pattern of relations between France and Africa if we want to look at the future together.”
Aside from the superficial, the pattern hasn’t changed. In 2009, for example, a senior French official openly supported Ali Bongo to succeed his father, Omar Bongo, as president of Gabon, despite the latter’s dictatorial record and the dynastic nature of the succession.
France is considering devaluing the African franc again, effectively excluding affected countries from competitive trade with Europe. And France maintains military bases in a number of African countries.
This has been coupled with a new challenge: France’s increasing anti-immigrant sentiment, aimed particularly at Africans, who constitute the bulk of immigration into France.
In response, Sarkozy has announced plans for much tougher immigration policies, which would limit immigration to just 100,000 people per year. This was a central election plank as he campaigned for re-election.
His opponent in that election – which took place on Sunday – is François Hollande, a leftist candidate who is currently leading in the polls.
Because neither candidate is expected to garner more than 50% of the vote, there should be a run-off election to determine the winner. But as far as Africa policy is concerned, there’s unlikely to be a huge change no matter who’s in power.
Hollande – like Sarkozy before him – has promised to reform the relationship, wanting to withdraw France’s military presence.
But he also wants to increase civil and economic “co-operation”, which is hardly to refrain from the country’s normal meddling in African affairs. As David Thomson commented, writing for France 24: “France has never managed to stay out of Africa for long.”
For once, however, it might not all be up to Sarkozy or Hollande, or whoever happens to be running France in a few months’ time. Leadership contests in Africa aren’t quite as easy to manipulate as before, as evidenced by French darling Abdoulaye Wade’s loss in the Senegalese elections.
The new president, Macky Sall, doesn’t even have a French wife, unlike his predecessors Wade and Leopold Senghor, and might not be quite as amenable to French interests.
And other countries, looking to do a little modern empire-building of their own, are sniffing around in what was traditionally France’s back yard. China especially is a threat to France’s influence in Africa, but so too are the United States, India, and even, to an extent, South Africa.
More importantly, the dynamics of the power relationship are beginning to change thanks to France’s reliance on Africa’s natural resources, particularly in the energy sector. Its nuclear power stations, for example, import nearly half the uranium they need from Niger, and preferential access to oil is thought to have been one of the major motivations for France’s strident involvement in the Libyan military intervention.
As Omar Bongo once commented in a newspaper interview: “Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel.” Africa is learning to drive itself but France, for so long fuelled by Africa’s resources, risks running on empty.