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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 April 2007, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Breaking France's Africa habit
By Lucy Ash
Presenter, France versus the World

Corruption scandals, support of dictatorial regimes and competition from other countries are threatening Paris's special relationship with Africa. So will France's next president have a very different policy towards the continent?

(from left) President of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaore, Gabonese President Omar Bongo Ondimba and Jacques Chirac
Jacques Chirac felt at home at the Franco-African summit in Cannes
Throughout his presidency Jacques Chirac has appeared his happiest during his state visits to Africa.

In 2003, after his flamboyant No to the war in Iraq, he became the first French president to visit Algeria since that country won independence from France in 1962.

At least half a million people turned out to cheer the French president as he drove through the capital, Algiers, even though he had fought against the Algerians during their struggle for independence when he was a lieutenant in the French army.

Mr Chirac has acknowledged that his own experience of that brutal war made him sceptical about trying to impose democracy by force on another Muslim nation.

"We really were much wiser precisely because we were a former colonial country in that region," says Dominique Moisi, of France's Institute of International Affairs.

"We remember the cost of the Algerian war and we knew in advance that Iraq could only be a catastrophe so there is a sense of self-righteousness - for once we were right."

Chirac's charm

While France may feel justified in opposing the US invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, many feel less comfortable about the role their country has played in many parts of Africa.

I think it's very outdated. It's like in Napoleonic times: very secret things, missions, goals. We are not in those times anymore
Francois Roche
Editor of the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine
Ever since General de Gaulle oversaw the decolonisation process, France has regarded its former African colonies as its backyard.

It kept troops in Francophone Africa and a close eye on the natural resources within its former colonies. It has also sent hundreds of "technical advisers" to work inside African governments.

Jacques Chirac has prided himself on building personal links with African leaders.

At the recent Franco-African summit in Cannes, the Malian President, Amadou Toumani Toure, addressed him as "my dear Jacques" and paid tribute to "the personal touch" Mr Chirac had brought to Franco-African relations.

The French president likes to be called "Chirac L'Africain [Chirac The African]". As he bid farewell to his old friends at the summit, including dinosaurs like Omar Bongo who has been in power in Gabon for 40 years, he told them: "You all know how much I love and respect Africa."

Paternalism

But at a recent demonstration in Paris, I heard a different story. Dozens of banners denounced French support for dictators and corrupt regimes across the continent.

Protest rally in Paris against French policy in Africa
Critics say much of French aid funds for Africa is squandered
"All the money France sends to Africa goes into the dictators' pockets to buy expensive villas," said one man from Congo Brazzaville.

"And the money from our oil reserves doesn't go to school, clinics, roads or anything for local people."

Sharon Courtoux of the lobby group Survie, which lobbies citizens and politicians for a reform of French policy in Africa, is scornful of Mr Chirac's professed devotion to the continent:

"If you love your children you take care of them. How can he love Africa if he upholds tyrants? My answer is he does not love Africa. He may have buddies there but just look at who they are.

"Just look at the recent elections in Togo.

"The Togolese people did not vote for Eyadema's son, he was imposed on them by the army, many people died and what did President Chirac do? He offered his congratulations."

Francois Roche, editor of the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine, says a lack of accountability within the French system is a big obstacle when it comes to reforming its relations with Africa.

Back in the 1960s, the political elite created "la Francafrique": an unofficial cell in the Elysee Palace, answerable to no one. It has continued to operate under both Gaullist and Socialist governments.

"Foreign affairs are supposed to be the thing of the president, and they have to be treated in a kind of semi-secret way especially when it comes to Africa," Mr Roche says.

"All our deputies are very keen on tracking every euro spent on social issues or health care but as far as foreign policy is concerned, they don't ask a lot of questions, because it is supposed to be the job of the Elysee to do that.

"I think it's very outdated. It's like in Napoleonic times: very secret things, missions, goals. We are not in those times any more."

Different time

Both Nicolas Sarkozy the Gaullist hopeful and Segolene Royal, the Socialist party candidate, have called for greater transparency in dealings with Africa and denounced paternalistic ties with individual leaders.

But some are not convinced that much is going to change.

Take Daniel Brechart, a French expat businessman in Ivory Coast.

A relatively calm and prosperous country, Ivory Coast used to be the shop window of Francophone Africa but all that changed after France intervened militarily in November 2004.

Mr Brechart witnessed an orgy of anti-French rioting and thousands of French citizens had to flee the country.

"I have no confidence and no hope for real reform," he says.

"I know that Segolene Royal was brought up in Senegal and she says she understands Africa. But I don't think she realises that things have changed completely and France can't turn the clock back. We need a new relationship with far more respect."

You can hear Lucy Ash's four-part BBC series France versus the World, broadcast on the BBC World Service.




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