50 years on: Has France really let go of its former colonies?
Francafrique, the name given to the secret and sometimes shady political and commercial ties between France and its former colonies, may finally be breathing its last breath.
During his run for president three years ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised to get rid of “Francafrique.” Indeed, French analysts have predicted its death for years. Active speculation began in 1994, with the death of Cote d’Ivoire’s first post-independence president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who served for 33 years and was known as the “father of Francafrique.” Three years later, then-French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin signaled a turn toward greater neutrality by defining relations with Africa as “neither interference nor indifference.”
And yet, as 14 former French colonies are getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence this summer, a web of political, financial, military and personal ties still connects them to France.
The relationship between France and its former colonies is based on a tight, informal network of connections among the countries’ elites. Many of the leaders in this network first met on the benches of French universities, especially the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), where most senior French officials are trained. Houphouet-Boigny even served as a member of the French Parliament.
“Any francophone African leader can go to France whenever and be received by the President,” said Herman Cohen, former U.S. Ambassador to Gambia and Senegal. “The doors are always open in the Elysee.”
That was clear in April, when General Sekouba Konate, Guinea’s interim leader, was in France for a week-long “private visit,” meeting with the French President and his foreign minister to talk about the political process in Guinea ahead of this summer’s presidential election. But some of his ministers were denied visas over the massacre at an opposition rally last September of at least 150 protesters. The international community has imposed sanctions against the members of the junta, led by Konate, suspected of being involved in the massacre.
But Sarkozy, unlike most of his predecessors, is not a product of the ENA’s elite education. “He doesn’t have the interest or the connections that other Presidents had,” said Roland Marchal, an expert at the French National Center for Scientific Research.
So while the Elysee door may remain open for state visits, Sarkozy has begun to take other significant steps toward severing the Francafrique ties. During his visit to Gabon in February, he signed a new defense deal that no longer guarantees automatic French intervention in case of internal or external threats. At the same time, France handed over its military base in Senegal to the Senegalese, making the one in Gabon the only remaining French base on the Atlantic coast.
“The French are spending less time trying to influence internal politics [in the former colonies],” said Cohen. “Sarkozy has fazed that out.”
What Sarkozy has not done yet, according to experts, is to replace “Francafrique” with a new French policy for Africa. That, said Marchal, may explain why Francafrique’s demise is a slow one. Sarkozy is reluctant to end it completely because of a “fear of emptiness, a sense of ‘If I don’t go, someone else will,’” he said.
Once France puts more distance between itself and the former colonies, the United States, China and Brazil could move in to build new spheres of influence on the continent. China in particular has sought footholds in Africa, and many countries have welcomed it as a less condescending business and political partner than western nations such as France and the U.S.
Still, Francafrique today is based mostly on financial interests rather than political influence. Although Africa represents only about two percent of French commercial exchanges (down from 40 percent in the 1960s), French companies are still very involved in Africa and its natural resources (oil, wood, iron…) and the French private sector is still the biggest investor on the continent.
Francophone leaders may also be helping kill the beast. “There is no replacement,” said Marchal. “Give it another generation or two.” Of the leaders around during the Francafrique heydays in the 1980s, only Paul Biya, President of Cameroun and Idriss Deby, President of Chad, are still around.
“New leaders are much less focused on France,” said Sarbib. “They speak English, they are more cosmopolite.” So France, wary of losing its natural power base in Francophone Africa, is trying to expand its presence on the continent. And that means going after the hearts and minds of Anglophone countries, starting with Rwanda (English was made an official language in 2008 and the country was admitted to the Commonwealth in 2009.)
After his visit to Gabon, Sarkozy stopped in Rwanda, a first in 15 years for a French president and an example of France’s attempt to reconcile with countries hostile to France.
France and Rwanda have sparred for years over their respective role in the 1994 genocide, in which 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred, pushing the two countries to cut their diplomatic ties in 2006. Sarkozy’s visit was seen as a major step forward in the Franco-Rwandan relationship, after restarting diplomatic ties last November.
Why Rwanda? Because it is strategically located next to the mineral rich Democratic Republic of Congo and because it has the most efficient army in this volatile region. Getting back in Rwanda’s good graces is “part of an attempt to control a very strategic and unsteady zone,” said Sarbib.
France has always counted on its former colonies for support on the international stage and it will continue to do so.
“It gives France a certain position in the world that is bigger than France itself,” said Cohen. With their support France can maintain its position as a “big” country, without it could lose not only its influence in Africa but also in the world.