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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 17:37 GMT
Analysis: Allies in Africa
British FM Jack Straw (far-left), French FM Hubert Vedrine (centre), Rwandan FM Bumaya Andre
France and Britain were traditionally colonial competitors
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

More than 100 years after they almost came to blows over African spoils, France and Britain have embarked on a new era of co-operation to sort out the continent's woes.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, are on a three-day visit to central Africa, taking in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

The aim of the trip: to apply joint diplomatic pressure on the region's leaders to withdraw foreign armies from the DR Congo, and bring to an end the country's chronic state of civil war.

It is all part of the so-called St Malo doctrine - named after the French port where, in December 1998, the two countries agreed to set aside their decades of rivalry in Africa, and to work together to promote development there.


A first joint trip by foreign ministers took place four months later, when Mr Vedrine and then-UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook went to Ghana and Ivory Coast.

French troops
The French have gradually withdrawn troops from colonial outposts
This is the follow-up.

In France more than in Britain, the policy represents a radical break with the past.

Unlike London - which genuinely nurtured its former African possessions into independence - Paris preferred a kind of post-colonial colonialism.

It protected and bank-rolled client states in order to preserve its territorial foothold.

But it all began to go wrong in the mid-1990s.

The old generation of Gaullists which had overseen the special relationship was dying off, and in 1997 a Socialist government came to power.

Shedding baggage

More important were two events in 1994 which drastically undermined France's status on the continent.

First the collapse of the CFA franc - the currency linked to the French franc used by many former colonies - and second, the Rwandan genocide.

France has never entirely shrugged off the claim that its officials at least knew of the impending catastrophe. At a time of growing British and American influence on the continent, France's image was shattered.

Skulls from the Rwandan genocide
The Rwandan genocide permanently altered France's status in the region
France's new policy is thus built on a pragmatic appreciation that its reach extends furthest when clasped to another.

The irony is that France has spent most of the past five years trying to jettison its post-colonial baggage, withdrawing troops from some of their remoter outposts, cutting budgets and bringing the old "Co-operation Ministry" - which was a separate Africa fiefdom - under the authority of the Quai D'Orsay.

Britain under Tony Blair - with less of a guilt complex - is moving in the opposite direction, viewing Africa as an essential part of its "moral" foreign policy and even intervening militarily in Sierra Leone in 2000.

However it is viewed, the two countries' partnership is a welcome break from the time - not so long ago - when they vied to divide up Africa into competing spheres of influence.

It is extraordinary to think that some very old heads might even now remember the so-called Fashoda incident of 1899, when British and French forces came close to a military confrontation over the control of the Nile headwaters.

Since then the colonies have come and gone. Britain and France are back seeking influence in Africa, but thus time - thankfully - with a somewhat more humanitarian rationale.

See also:

11 Mar 99 | Africa
New era in African partnership
23 Dec 98 | French in Africa
France - superpower or sugar daddy?
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