Page last updated at 08:08 GMT, Friday, 21 May 2010 09:08 UK

How France maintains its grip on Africa

French President Nicolas Sarkozy greets his Malian counterpart Amadou Toumani Toure prior to a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris
French President Nicolas Sarkozy greets his Malian counterpart Amadou Toumani Toure prior to a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris

By Stephen Smith
BBC Focus on Africa Magazine

This year, 50 years on from the independence of most former French colonies in Africa, relations between France and its erstwhile possessions south of the Sahara remain murkier and more confused than ever. Never mind.

In the summer, Paris plans to host a so-called "renovation summit" to revamp Franco-African relations. But many critics, both in France and in Africa, say the gathering will be more a sign of business-as-usual rather than something that will encourage reform.

Paradoxically, protests against Francafrique (the Franco-African shadow state which perpetuated French influence south of the Sahara after 1960) have been far more vocal in the wake of the massive French disengagement from the region after the end of the Cold War than during the three decades - les trente glorieuses - of French neo-colonialism from 1960-1989.

France has been reluctant to play the role of the gendarme of Africa

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of East-West geopolitical rivalry encouraged public debate about France's role in Africa.

Just how many first- and second-generation immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are living in France today remains an open question, as French law prohibits statistics based on racial criteria. However, it is estimated that up to 5% of the country's 65 million inhabitants originate from the region.

Many have acquired French citizenship and form, together with long-standing French nationals from the Antilles, what the national media refers to as "Black France".

But since racially tainted riots erupted in major French cities at the end of 2005, many French people of African descent - perhaps alienated from the powers-that-be in Paris - consciously define themselves as "hyphenated" citizens: Franco-Africans with divided national loyalties.

Renewed, balanced and transparent

On the eve of this year's Bastille Day, the heads of state of former French interests in Africa are due to gather around President Nicolas Sarkozy "to highlight and to bear out the evolution of Franco-African relations which are to remain privileged while being renewed, balanced and transparent".

Using less convoluted language than the official communique, the president explained in December that the purpose was "to turn the page of the debate on [French] colonisation and post-colonisation".

Exhibitions, round-table discussions, publications and academic conferences have been scheduled throughout this year.

Police patrol the city streets after a ban was imposed on any gatherings that could potentially cause violence on November 12, 2005
2005 saw racially focused riots erupt across much of France

The high point of the festivities is to be the 14 July parade on the Champs Elysees where French and African troops will march in lock-step saluting President Sarkozy and his guests of honour.

The military show is meant to be a reminder of Franco-African fraternity of arms, notably against Nazi occupation in World War II.

The African heads of state will also attend the traditional garden party at the Elysee Palace following the Bastille Day parade. The event's theme is "Diversity - the human reality which links the colonial past to present-day immigrant France," according to the Elysee communique, but this in particular is causing a few ructions.

The person appointed by Mr Sarkozy to run this year's events is Jacques Toubon whose previous political career is quite telling.

Not only is he a die-hard Gaullist - an ideology named after former President Charles de Gaulle who insisted on maintaining as much control as possible over France's African interests - but he is also a former minister of culture and, since 2005, has been at the helm of a new museum dedicated to the history of immigration in France.

The museum occupies a pavilion erected for the Colonial Exhibition in 1931, which marked the acme of French imperialism.

As a result, criticism has been voiced against the mixed messages being sent by the government on the subject.


On the one hand there seems to be a direct line drawn between la plus grande France - the "Greater France" of colonial times - and immigration.

But, on the other hand, since Mr Sarkozy's election in spring 2007, the French government has intensified efforts to conclude bilateral treaties with states south of the Sahara aiming at a "joint management" of migratory movements.

Yet while small and relatively privileged countries like Gabon have signed such agreements, more important reservoirs of sub-Saharan immigration, namely Mali, have so far refused to "co-police" migration.

Mr Sarkozy's government has been more successful in renegotiating the defence treaties which were signed with all former colonies in 1960 (except for Sekou Toure's Guinea which cut the umbilical cord with Paris in 1958, achieving independence two years earlier than all the other former French colonies).

The revised treaties clarify mutual obligations and, in particular, no longer contain "secret clauses" for French military intervention in case of internal conflict.

Making discretionary use of its right to intervene, France has staged over 40 military operations to save, or sometimes topple, African regimes since 1960, mostly during the Cold War.

But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and especially after the debacle in Rwanda in 1994, France has been reluctant to play the role of the gendarme of Africa.

Focus on Africa Magazine
This article was originally published in Focus on Africa magazine . To read more and subscribe, visit their website.

As a result, the number of French military advisers on the continent has been slashed from 925 in 1990 to 264 in 2008; in the same period the budget for military assistance was halved.

There are still about 10,000 French soldiers deployed south of the Sahara, down from 15,000 in 1989. But half of them are serving on temporary missions, often under UN mandates.

Also, in the past 20 years, Paris has closed three out of six permanent bases on the continent.

France's foreign direct investment in Africa has also plummeted since the Berlin Wall crumbled. While the African share stood at just over 30% in 1989, it has been consistently below 5% since the turn of the century.

Furthermore, the bulk of France's overseas capital investment has been shrewdly diversified beyond former colonial boundaries in favour of non-francophone countries such as Nigeria, Angola, Kenya and South Africa.

Shady middlemen

Yet, despite France's disengagement from its former colonies, political mores between Paris and the francophone capitals of the continent remained characterised by back-door arrangements and shady middlemen.

Nicolas Sarcozy speaks at an event sponsored by the American Jewish Committee in Washington
Nicolas Sarkozy had committed to combating disengagement

As a presidential candidate, Mr Sarkozy committed himself to cleaning up les reseau: the informal Franco-African networks. "We must rid Franco-African relations of the networks of a bygone age," he declared in a speech in Benin in 2006.

But since he took office, President Sarkozy has perpetuated France's time-honoured tradition of parallel diplomacy in Africa.

One set of advisers presides in public over the official business with Africa, while high-ranking Elysee staff, in tandem with unofficial middlemen, is in charge of the lucrative and highly personalised politics that Mr Sarkozy denounced during his presidential campaign.

The French media regularly expose the broken promises and the new lease on life given to Francafrique.

The elite collusion of Francafrique has become an anachronism, at odds with the stark realities of shrinking French engagement - both government and private - with its former territories south of the Sahara.

For example, Mauritania's General Mohammed Ould Abdelaziz continued to visit the Elysee Palace after the coup that brought him to power, despite being denounced in capitals across Europe.

Hence, if they care at all, most French belittle the 2010 "renovation summit" as a political gimmick, actually not all that different from the so-called "independence of the flag" granted to the African colonies in 1960.

Stephen Smith is a visiting professor at Duke University in the United States. His new book - Le Nouveau Monde Franco-Africain - was released in April.

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