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Wednesday, March 10, 1999 Published at 23:26 GMT

World: Africa

Anglo-French diplomatic drive in Africa

The French felt the loss of their influence in Rwanda

By Diplomatic Correspondent Barnaby Mason

The UK and French foreign ministers, Robin Cook and Hubert Védrine, are embarking on a new Anglo-French diplomatic drive in Africa.

The two ministers are making a joint visit to two African countries, Ghana and Ivory Coast, to symbolise a new policy of co-operation rather than rivalry in Africa.

They will open the first ever conference of British and French ambassadors from 12 African countries in Abidjan, on Ivory Coast, on Thursday.

The Franco-British initiative was decided at a summit in St Malo in December. But there is doubt whether it will either end the rivalry or resolve intractable African conflicts.

[ image: France has made a big cultural push in Kenya]
France has made a big cultural push in Kenya
During the 19th Century, imperialist Britain and France carved up most of Africa between them. Rivalry has continued up to the present day over spheres of influence covering English-speaking and French-speaking countries.

Robin Cook says the culture of competition is ebbing and he wants it replaced by a culture of co-operation.

Hubert Védrine says it is time to overcome the rivalries that still exist between European Union partners.

For this purpose, an ex-UK colony, Ghana, and a former French one, the Ivory Coast, have been chosen with deliberate symbolism.

The conference of Africa-based French and UK ambassadors will discuss harmonising policy and practical co-operation like exchanging information, locating embassies on the same site - even, perhaps, representing each other in countries where either France or the UK does not have an embassy.

Rivalries resurfacing

However, there are signs that commercial and cultural rivalry between the two may even be hotting up.

British exports to the Ivory Coast have almost doubled, while France has been making a big cultural push into Kenya, emphasising, as always, the teaching of French.

Political rivalry is still acute, too. The French still feel deeply their loss of influence in Central Africa, where English-speaking Tutsis took over the government of Rwanda and they and the Ugandans helped topple President Mobutu in French-speaking Congo, formerly Zaire.

French ties

It is doubtful that France and Britain could agree on a common policy there - but joint action may be able to help in Sierra Leone.

British officials note that despite rethinking, the French still maintain a presence in Africa of a quite different kind.

There are 6,000 French troops permanently stationed on the continent and up to 300 advisers working in African governments.

As one French official summed up decolonisation: "We left - they didn't."

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