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One of two good reads on the subject in a single issue. Excepts and links follow.
A funeral in Gabon is a test of how fast and how far Nicolas Sarkozy is changing Franceâ€šÃ„Ã´s policy towards Africa
TWO French presidents, one serving (Nicolas Sarkozy), one retired (Jacques Chirac), a foreign minister (Bernard Kouchner), plus a clutch of current and former ministers and other dignitaries. The weight of the French delegation that flew from Paris to Libreville for the funeral on June 16th of Omar Bongo Ondimba, Africaâ€šÃ„Ã´s longest-serving leader and object of a big corruption case in France, reflects the close-knit ties the country has kept with leaders of former African colonies, however unsavoury. But did so many French bigwigs go to Gabon to praise what they like to call franâˆšÃŸafriqueâ€šÃ„Ã®or to bury it, along with Mr Bongo (see obituary)?
Before his election in 2007 Mr Sarkozy promised to loosen Franceâ€šÃ„Ã´s complicit bonds to African leaders, calling them â€šÃ„Ãºnetworks of a bygone eraâ€šÃ„Ã¹. French-African ties, he argued, needed to be more transparent and less personal, based on respect not paternalism. The post-colonial web of petrodollars, political influence and business contracts, which linked French leaders of both left and right to their African counterparts, had come to discredit France. This was starkly exposed during the 2002-03 corruption trial involving Elf-Aquitaine, an oil company, in which several French bosses were jailed. An echo from that era could be heard recently when one former French president, ValâˆšÂ©ry Giscard dâ€šÃ„Ã´Estaing, accused another, Mr Chirac, of receiving party finance from Mr Bongo in 1981â€šÃ„Ã®a charge that Mr Chirac emphatically denies.
Mr Sarkozy had other reasons to reconsider Franceâ€šÃ„Ã´s Africa policy. Thanks to its permanent military bases on the continent (see map) and longstanding bilateral defence accords with many ex-colonies, France has often sought to play the role of regional gendarme. It still has 1,350 troops in Chad, where they were the largest part of a European Union force, sent in largely to support the army against rebels and to protect refugees from Darfur. Yet France is not enjoying the return it once did from its peacekeeping. Commercially it faces Chinese competition: China has overtaken France as sub-Saharan Africaâ€šÃ„Ã´s top trading partner. So France has been picking up the security tab and getting a bad press, but losing out on both business and credibility.
Mr Sarkozyâ€šÃ„Ã´s promised fresh start has had only mixed success. He caused widespread offence in his first big speech in Senegal in 2007 by declaring that â€šÃ„Ãºthe tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history,â€šÃ„Ã¹ describing how the African peasant lived according to natural rhythms with â€šÃ„Ãºno placeâ€šÃ„Â¶for the idea of progress.â€šÃ„Ã¹ The indignation this prompted was only partly soothed by warmer words in a later speech in South Africa. Mr Sarkozy left many in Africa with the impression that he saw the continent as a hopeless nuisanceâ€šÃ„Ã®and that his real interest was tighter controls on visas and immigration to France.
Another episode last year hinted at business as usual. Jean-Marie Bockel, his overseas-aid minister, was moved to another job. His error? A bold speech, arguing for the need â€šÃ„Ãºto sign the death warrant for franâˆšÃŸafriqueâ€šÃ„Ã¹ and denouncing patronage and wasted public money. Mr Bockel lost his job, according to Mr Bongoâ€šÃ„Ã´s lawyer, Robert Bourgi, at the request of Mr Bongo himself. â€šÃ„ÃºBockel hadnâ€šÃ„Ã´t understood anything about Africa,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Mr Bourgi told Le Point, a French magazine. â€šÃ„ÃºHe had to go.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Yet in other ways Mr Sarkozy has genuinely tried to ease France out of old habits, notably in defence. Last month he opened a military base in Abu Dhabi, just across the water from Iran, where France has no colonial ties. The establishment of this base, Franceâ€šÃ„Ã´s first in the Gulf, followed a strategic defence review that called for a reorientation of overseas defence efforts away from military help for former colonies towards a â€šÃ„Ãºstrategic arcâ€šÃ„Ã¹ running through the Mediterranean to the Horn of Africa, the Gulf and on to South Asia.
The French are keen to stress that this does not constitute a â€šÃ„Ãºwithdrawalâ€šÃ„Ã¹ from Africa. Yet they also plan to close one (as yet unspecified) of their three permanent African military basesâ€šÃ„Ã®in Djibouti, Senegal and Gabon. A one-time base in CâˆšÂ¥te dâ€šÃ„Ã´Ivoire has been downgraded to a temporary â€šÃ„Ãºoverseas missionâ€šÃ„Ã¹, and wound down from 2,400 troops to 1,150. Bilateral defence agreements, which spread suspicion among young Africans about Franceâ€šÃ„Ã´s role in propping up dodgy leaders, are to be updated and made public. â€šÃ„ÃºThis is not a retreat from Africa,â€šÃ„Ã¹ comments FranâˆšÃŸois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, who took part in the defence review. â€šÃ„ÃºBut we are saying that Africa will no longer be number one.â€šÃ„Ã¹
One test of Franceâ€šÃ„Ã´s new approach will be the succession to Mr Bongo. In the old days French presidents would handpick leaders, running African affairs from an office in the ElysâˆšÂ©e. Indeed, Charles de Gaulle and his â€šÃ„ÃºMonsieur Afriqueâ€šÃ„Ã¹, Jacques Foccart, installed Mr Bongo himself in 1967. In Paris this week Mr Kouchner vowed that â€šÃ„ÃºfranâˆšÃŸafrique is finishedâ€šÃ„Ã¹. The Gabonese, he insisted, had to decide on a new leader themselves. He added that â€šÃ„Ãºthe French army will never back a government against the opposition.â€šÃ„Ã¹ Yet with various members of the Bongo clan manoeuvring for power, it remains to be seen if the French can resist meddling altogether.
Another test may be a corruption case against three African leaders (including the deceased Mr Bongo). The complaint was first filed by the French branch of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group. It involves charges of embezzlement and the misuse of public money. A preliminary inquiry showed that Mr Bongo, or members of his family, had no fewer than 39 French properties (many of them in swanky Paris districts), nine cars and 70 bank accounts in France. The lawsuit has had a bumpy ride. The Paris public prosecutor, who answers to the Ministry of Justice, dropped the original case. But last month Franceâ€šÃ„Ã´s top investigating magistrate ruled that it should be reopened. The Paris public prosecutor has since challenged this ruling; a verdict by an appeal court is due in the autumn.
In many ways Mr Bongo was the epitome of franâˆšÃŸafrique, the mastermind behind all Franco-African networks. His departure, combined with Mr Sarkozyâ€šÃ„Ã´s reorientation of Franceâ€šÃ„Ã´s Africa policy, is sure to weaken the old personal relationships and may usher in a new era. How fast and how far is another matter. â€šÃ„ÃºFranceâ€šÃ„Ã´s relations with Africa will be increasingly normalised,â€šÃ„Ã¹ says Antoine Glaser, a French African specialist and co-author of a book on Mr Sarkozyâ€šÃ„Ã´s policy towards Africa. â€šÃ„ÃºBut franâˆšÃŸafrique is like an ocean liner: you canâ€šÃ„Ã´t just stop it from one day to the next.â€šÃ„Ã¹
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