After his election to the French presidency in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy promised to put an end to undue French influence in the affairs of former African colonies. But the path to disengagement is proving to be a long, slow process.
At the end of the 1990s, French policy in Africa came under some of the harshest criticism yet as French-African relations continued their inexorable decline. Dubiously acquired goods, the French government’s focus on aid to Africa instead of development and coups d’état fomented from Paris all added to a climate of mistrust in the era following the first years of African independence.
Jacques Foccart, former chief advisor on African policy to then president Charles de Gaulle, was looking to solidify certain ties with the continent for a France newly released from its former empire.
Foccart, known as “Mr. Africa”, remained at the helm of French policy in Africa and Madagascar for decades and was responsible for the making and unmaking of several African leaders in French-speaking Africa. It was a time when Africa was “the sole continent where France could still, with 500 men, change the course of history," according to a foreign minister who served under former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.
But the 1990s brought with it the end of the post-colonial era. In 1994, the devaluation of the CFA franc by 50 percent was viewed as treason by the 14 former French colonies. That same year, the authorities who came to power in Kigali following the Rwandan genocide accused France of involvement in the events leading up to the massacre. Finally, a 2002 scandal over payments the Elf energy giant was making to African officials – ostensibly with the blessing of the French government under both de Gaulle and François Mitterrand – and Elf funds that found their way back to Paris highlighted France’s murky deals on the continent.
Sarkozy’s ‘no meddling’ policy
Gradually over the years, Paris has been reducing its presence in Africa in the political, military and humanitarian spheres. Defence contracts and their secret clauses have been progressively renegotiated. The African continent is also no longer dependent on French funding, once a main source of influence. It now receives significant sums from the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, while China has become Africa's biggest trading partner.
A 2007 Sarkozy campaign pledge promised to end French meddling in Africa. “We is not going to get embroiled in disagreements with those who have done us a great service,” proclaimed Claude Guéant, a top advisor to Sarkozy.
“For Nicolas Sarkozy, African affairs boil down to migration issues and drug trafficking, and are not a priority,” says Vincent Hugeux, senior correspondent for French daily L'Express and a specialist on Africa. The fact that Sarkozy delegates the dossier to others, like Guéant, speaks volumes, he says.
But when Jean-Marie Bockel, former minister in charge of cooperation, promised the end of French patronage in Africa in 2008, he earned the ire of Gabon’s late president, Omar Bongo Ondimba. Bongo reportedly relayed his feelings to the French president through his lawyer. Some weeks later, Bockel was replaced by Alain Joyandet, who has no background in African affairs.
An impartial presence?
France has never managed to stay out of Africa for long. Paris is suspected of supporting Chad’s leader, Idriss Déby Itno, with decisive military and logistical support in 2008 when his administration was under attack by rebels in the east of the country. In August 2009, Joyandet, now Sarkozy’s official Africa advisor, announced in French daily Le Monde – a day before Gabonese elections to determine a successor to Bongo – that his preferred candidate was the late president’s son, Ali Bongo.
Joyandet’s statement once again called into question claims of French neutrality in the continent’s politics, and fuelled anti-French sentiment among Gabon’s youth. Similar simmerings of resentment rose to the surface in Ivory Coast in 2004 and Togo in 2005 during disputed presidential elections. For all of France’s recent attempts to disengage itself from its African past, the roots of its relationships still run deep.