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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Sarkozy's Africa policy shift
By Henri Astier
BBC News

Sarkozy and Nelson Mandela
Sarkozy is seeking relationships outside of France's former colonies
Nicolas Sarkozy became French president in May promising "rupture" on every possible issue - and he made clear that the old corrupt ties with former African colonies were among the items to be ditched.

During the campaign he called for a "healthier relationship" with Africa. The message was reaffirmed during Mr Sarkozy's first presidential trip to the continent in July - when he called for a new "partnership between equal nations" - and again during the current UN General Assembly in New York.

In the clearest indication yet that Paris's Africa policy was no longer focused on its French-speaking backyard, Mr Sarkozy chaired a Security Council meeting on African crises, and presented plans for international humanitarian intervention in Darfur and Somalia.

Putting aside old rivalries, he also said that it was "good news" that other major powers, such the US and China, also took an interest in Africa.

This suggests a sharp contrast with France's traditional policy in Africa, which was deeply defensive and aimed at preserving a sphere of influence on a continent which former French Foreign Minister Jean Sauvagnargues called "the only place in the world where France can single-handedly influence policy".

This policy - derogatively called "Francafrique" and epitomised by Mr Sarkozy's immediate predecessors Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac - was in many ways an extension of colonial rule.

Talking the talk

Personal links between French and African leaders bound Paris to friendly regimes which were given protection in exchange for political allegiance, votes at the UN, and deals with French firms that were lucrative for all concerned.

Sarkozy and Omar Bongo
A visit to Gabon was a reminder of old corrupt networks
It is true that in the past 15 years France has increasingly emphasised human rights and clean government among its proteges.

Mr Mitterrand lectured African leaders about democracy as early as 1990.

In the following decade, France withdrew thousands of troops from Africa and drastically reduced its support for bankrupt economies.

But talk of "normalisation" and clean government was not always matched by reality.

France backed the Hutu extremists who carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

To this day, many of its allies- such as Chad, the Central African Republic, and Cameroon - are near the bottom of international corruption lists.

Others, such as the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Togo, have recently held elections that were internationally condemned as fraudulent.

More of the same?

So are Mr Sarkozy's promises of a fresh start any more credible than previous pledges of reform in France's African policy?

Many observers doubt it.

Some aspects of Mr Sarkozy's visit to Africa in July - which began in Libya with the announcement of an arms deal negotiated secretly with Tripoli - reminded sceptics of the bad old ways.

Francafrique is a big boat - you can't turn it around overnight


Antoine Glaser, Africa specialist
Senegalese sociologist Malik Ndiaye told the BBC that Mr Sarkozy sent the wrong message by starting his first trip to the continent in a country Mr Ndiaye regards as "an anti-democratic model".

When Mr Sarkozy went on to Gabon, the Cameroon Tribune expressed dismay at his meeting with President Omar Bongo, whom the newspaper called a "symbol of Francafrique".

Fabrice Tarrit, who heads the lobby group Survie, told the BBC News website: "Some of Nicolas Sarkozy's attitudes with respect to Omar Bongo or (Republic of Congo President) Denis Sassou-Nguesso would lead us to fear a degree of continuity in Franco-African relations."

Mr Tarrit was equally doubtful about Mr Sarkozy's humanitarian pledges at the UN.

"France is not the best placed to play peacemaker because historically it has contributed more to war than peace on the continent," he said.

Fear of Africa

But other analysts take the French president's rhetoric seriously.

Sarkozy and Laurent Gbagbo
France's links with its former colonies will remain strong
Antoine Glaser, a leading Africa-watcher, points out that Mr Sarkozy's attitude towards sub-Saharan countries is radically different from that of his predecessors.

For Mr Mitterrand and Mr Chirac, he says, France and Africa were bound by profound historical links.

"For them Africa was not a matter a matter of foreign policy: it was part of greater France," he told the BBC News website.

Furthermore, their close friendship with African leaders made French presidents reluctant to denounce corruption and abuses.

"Africa is not ready for democracy," Mr Chirac once said.

Mr Sarkozy, on the other hand, has no personal connection with a continent he seeks above all to keep at arm's length.

During the campaign, he mentioned Africa only as a potential source of uncontrolled immigration.

"What stands out in his thinking about sub-Saharan African is fear," Mr Glaser says.

"He only sees the region's nuisance power."

Turnaround?

In other words, France no longer makes exceptions where Africa is concerned. The former backyard, Mr Glaser argues, now falls under normal foreign policy, with France more interested in pursuing its own interests than in nurturing historical ties.

To emphasise the end of the special relationship, some aides had urged Mr Sarkozy to begin his sub-Saharan tour in Ghana and South Africa.

In the end, traditionalists prevailed and the president went to former colonies first.

But a shift is visible. It can be observed in the new immigration bill - widely condemned in Africa - which seeks to end uncontrolled flows and to allow France to choose which migrants it needs.

The trend towards normalisation is also perceptible in the lead Mr Sarkozy is taking in tackling emergencies outside French-speaking Africa.

Any change, to be sure, is bound to be gradual.

Many of France's diplomats, captains of industry and soldiers are old Africa hands who will resist abrupt change.

"Francafrique is a big boat," Mr Glaser says. "You can't turn it around overnight."



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31 Aug 07 |  Africa

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