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Monday, July 19, 1999 Published at 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK

World: Africa

Chirac's visit marks French policy shift

By Andrew Manley of African Analysis magazine

French president Jacques Chirac's four-nation African tour comes at a time when France's traditional African allies are increasingly confused about their future relationship with Paris.

The president is expected to arrive in Conakry, capital of ex-colony Guinea, on Wednesday, followed by overnight trips to Togo, newly democratic Nigeria and Cameroon.

His fourth trip to the region since his election in 1995, it comes at a time when his Gaullist political allies at home are in disarray.

French attitudes towards Africa - a vital part of France's sphere of influence since the beginning of the century - are increasingly complicated.

Meeting presidents, civic and business leaders, Mr Chirac will be attempting to reassure all concerned that France remains 'Africa's friend' in the industrialised world.

Personal links

However, the underlying picture is more complicated.

French politicians have always had an intense and deeply personal link with leaders in France's former African colonies.

Under the late François Mitterrand's 1981-95 presidency, regional military interventions, backing for dictators, and the state oil company Elf's activities in Gabon and Congo provoked growing domestic criticism.

[ image: The Rwandan genocide: French officials were accused of complicity]
The Rwandan genocide: French officials were accused of complicity
This peaked with the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Many critics viewed French officials as complicit, and demanded an end to what they saw as corrupt neo-colonialism.

The right-leaning Mr Chirac is himself a known intimate of many veteran African leaders - some of them under growing pressure from domestic opponents.

His first Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, wanted to reform diplomacy between Paris and African capitals. But, facing growing economic and social problems at home, he abandoned the idea.

Mr Juppé's defeat by Lionel Jospin and the Parti Socialiste-led left-wing alliance in 1997 led to fresh hopes among reformers. Even under a Gaullist president such as Mr Chirac, they argued, France's Africa policy could finally be cleaned up.

Working with European neighbours

[ image: President Chirac's policy towards Africa has been shaped by France's position within Europe]
President Chirac's policy towards Africa has been shaped by France's position within Europe
And indeed, much has changed. Mr Jospin has aimed to coordinate Africa policy with the United Kingdom's growing interest in trade and human rights questions under the present Labour government.

High-level co-operation has included a joint trip to Africa in March by French Foreign Secretary Hubert Védrine and his UK counterpart Robin Cook.

Mr Védrine has been equally clear that France no longer regards the United States as a threat to its interests on the African continent: an allegation which was an article of faith under President Mitterrand.

But Mr Védrine and other top policymakers - unlike their predecessors - clearly regard Africa as less important than the eastern expansion of the EU, and France's relationship with Russia and the Pacific Rim.

Another innovation is the absorption of the former ministry of co-operation by Védrine's foreign ministry.

'Co-opé', often nicknamed the 'ministry for Africa', was the cornerstone of the old relationships but the department can no longer run independent regional policies as before.

Eyes on Brussels

The other vital change is monetary.

[ image: Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine (right) has co-operated with his UK counterpart Robin Cook on African matters]
Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine (right) has co-operated with his UK counterpart Robin Cook on African matters
The CFA franc - shared by Cameroon, Ivory Coast and 12 other countries, had been tied to the French franc at a guaranteed rate since the 1940s.

It is now is effectively pegged to the Euro, France having joined the common European currency in January this year.

African finance ministers now watch Brussels as closely as Paris. Although the French Treasury still guarantees the link, changes cannot be made without approval from the European Central Bank.

The snap 50% competitive devaluation of the CFA franc five years ago had already given huge influence to the World Bank and the IMF, which drove through and underwrote the move.

And Mr Chirac himself realises that Africa can no longer be treated as the president's personal business, as it was under Presidents de Gaulle and Mitterrand.

The Elysée - the president's office - has carefully avoided an out-and-out policy battle with Mr Jospin and the reformers as they uproot decades of personalised diplomatic ties.

Bonds that unite

But few expect France simply to abandon several centuries' presence south of the Sahara. Ties are still too close between French and African political elites.

The continent remains a major business target. Despite steady budget cuts in recent years France is Africa's highest profile bilateral donor and retains a military presence in five African countries.

Instead, Paris is now trying to steer wider EU policy towards Africa, while counteracting other major European players - especially Germany and Italy - who want to downgrade debt and aid policies.

Faced with growing African scepticism as to his country's real thinking, Mr Chirac will hope to underline this ambiguous but reassuring message in coming days.

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