France is Forging New Relations with its Former Colonies, But Old Habits Die Hard

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“Françafrique – colonialism continues”. Grafitti deploring French necolonialism in Africa. Image: Ophelia Noor/Flickr

This article was originally published by The Conversation on 15 September, 2015.

As most Francophone African countries celebrate their 55 years of independence this year, this may be a good time to reassess relations between them and France.

The picture that arises from this assessment is that France’s relationship with its 20 former colonies is an ambivalent one. Among them are Algeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, as well as the greater Francophone African world that includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony. This ambivalence is best illustrated by two little reported events that took place recently.

The old versus the new

The first was when in early July, during an official visit to France, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, long-time president of the Republic of Congo, was honoured by a visit by French prime minister Manuel Valls at the hotel he was staying in.

The two men reportedly discussed the situation in the troubled Central African Republic – where Sassou-Nguesso has played the role of regional mediator.

They also discussed the rise of Boko Haram, as well as domestic Congolese politics. The Congolese president bemoaned the role played by the Congolese opposition and diaspora in France.

The issue of his candidacy in the presidential elections of 2016, when he would be seeking a third consecutive seven-year mandate, was not raised. The informal if not secret meeting was in many ways reminiscent of the old days of the Françafrique.

Then, French and African presidents entertained close. Personal relationships were systematically out of the grasp of the official governmental channels. They often included illegitimate and secret exchanges of monies and services.

The second event, on the other hand, tends to point to a normalisation of relations between France and Africa, even a determination to put an end to Françafrique.

In early August the French police arrested and interviewed Maixent Accrombessi, chief-of-staff to Gabonese President Ali Bongo. The allegations against him relate to corruption of foreign officers and money laundering involving the French company Marck. The company specialises in producing military uniforms.

Accrombessi was released later on the same day, once the Gabonese presidency had submitted a letter confirming his diplomatic immunity. But the move confirmed the French judiciary’s determination to tackle the many affairs that have defined years of Françafrique transactions.

Such a determination was best illustrated by the investigation into the French oil company Elf’s corruption network in Africa. The probe in the 1990s to the early 2000s was led by judge Eva Joly.

The same ambivalence is visible at the very top of the state. A few months after being elected, in October 2012, French President François Hollande announced the end of Françafrique before the Senegalese parliament.

Less than three months later, he was ordering a unilateral intervention in Mali. The intervention later became multilateral. It was supported, in part, by a UN Security Council resolution passed in December 2012, and was justified in the name of the international fight against extremism and terrorism. But it was nonetheless reminiscent of the many neocolonial French interventions in favour of African leaders known to be close to France’s leadership.

Relations with Chad tell a story

The first African state to join the French intervention in Mali, and from which French military aircrafts departed, was Chad. The country is also currently at the forefront of the fight against Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.

France’s relationship with Chad in many ways encapsulates the obstacles it is encountering in the normalisation of its relations with its former African colonies. Chadian President Idriss Déby is one of many African leaders intent on remaining in office as long as possible. He has been in power since 1990 and will be seeking a fifth presidential mandate next year.

His rule has so far been characterised by violence, instability and corruption. He is also known to have supported rebel groups in neighbouring Central African Republic and Sudan.

Yet the presence of a French military base in Chad, a remnant of the military agreements signed at independence in 1960, and the effectiveness of the Chadian army, have made him an indispensable ally in a region increasingly threatened by extremist groups.

Forces against neocolonial relations

But the normalisation of France-Africa relations is taking place, albeit slowly. Beyond the French leaders’ pledge to see to the end of Françafrique, there are a number of factors outside of France’s control that make this kind of neocolonial, exclusive bilateralism impossible nowadays.

The first is the rise in the number of international actors interested and present in Africa. These range from non-governmental organisations to multinational companies to rising southern nations – China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Iran or North Korea. Whether they act as immediate competitors or critical observers, their presence is forcing France out of its secretive monopoly.

The other, no less important, factor is to be found in the evolution of African foreign policies themselves. Africa now has foreign policy-savvy leaders and elites keen to diversify their international contacts and supports. They have no interest in a closed and exclusive relationship with the middle power that France has become.

That is not to say that France will depart from Africa any time soon. The continent is likely to remain the first non-Western area of priority for French foreign policy for many years to come. This is because of its decisive contribution to the Francophonie, historical links and geographical proximity to Europe.

This is especially so as France’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a position acquired in 1945 in great part thanks to the political and geostrategic advantages it could draw from its colonial empire, mean that it plays a determining role in establishing the many UN missions that operate in Africa.

But the normalisation that had been tentatively announced by then French President Francois Mitterrand in 1990 in his La Baule speech, where he urged African states to democratise, is taking place “doucement mais sûrement” – slowly but surely, as we would say.

Marie Gibert is currently an associate lecturer in te Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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