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French in Africa Wednesday, 23 December, 1998, 15:04 GMT
France - superpower or sugar daddy?
Presenter Ofeibea Quist-Arcton sharing a joke in Senegal
In two 40-minute programmes, "A Mission to Civilise?" examines the distinctive features of France's involvement with Africa.

From the centralism of the colonial period to the apparent flux of the present day, France has exercised a strong and abiding influence on the continent. These two programmes, presented by Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and produced by Lucy Ash, delve into the complexities of this relationship, and focus on two very different examples of the French impact on Africa: Gabon and Senegal.

Gabon: The Oil-Rigged State
Listen to the first programme in full

Senegal: La Mission Civilisatrice
Listen to the second programme in full

France's New Mission
by Lucy Ash

"France is not one of those countries which from time to time rediscovers Africa. We don't just pop in for a visit or when there's a crisis, economic turmoil or a natural disaster. France - for a very long time - has been your caring partner. We have a common history and we're always there, day in, day out. Make no mistake about it: France will not abandon Africa, we are in there for the long run."

For these French parachutists, Gabon is a tough testing ground
So vowed President Jacques Chirac. It was a familiar mixture of bombast and realpolitik. For his promise spoke volumes about France's policy towards a continent that, since the end of the Cold War, has barely figured on the foreign policy radar of other world powers. France, unlike so many of the ex-colonial powers, keeps a very close eye on its former territories (sometimes even continuing to deploy its troops in them) and is still exercising a very tangible influence on their internal affairs.

Chirac was speaking at the Carousel du Louvre, in the underbelly of the world's biggest museum. His audience was receptive, although wary. The gathering was the Franco-African Summit, a collection of 49 countries, including many a violator of human rights and potential extradition candidate to match General Pinochet. The most notorious of them was Laurent Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and alleged butcher of dozens of thousands of Hutu refugees fleeing Rwanda. But here, the hosts, were determined to pull out the stops - banquets at the Elysee Palace, flanked by the Republican Guard, with their tight white jodhpurs, sabres and oddly effeminate horsehair helmets.

France's support for Africa's anciens regimes - like Mobutu's - cost it much credibility
But controversy is nothing new to France's Africa policy. Indeed, at one point, it looked as if the latest crop of leaders at the Elysee and Matignon had tired of it all. 1994 was the watershed year. Devaluation of the Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA) franc, the currency used by some fifteen Francophone states and pegged to the French franc, led to widespread protest and fears of withdrawal. But it was also the year of the Rwandan genocide. French complicity - unwitting or not - in the killing - drew universal opprobrium. A few years later, French support of Mobutu Sese Seko, right up to the bitter end, exposed Paris to ridicule and showed to what extent its policymakers, and intelligence services, had lost touch with events on the ground.

Talk of disengagement was no longer taboo.

French fears were exacerbated by what seemed to be new-found enthusiasm in the US State Department. American exports to Africa were rising, some years by up to a quarter. Corporations were looking for new investments. French companies like Elf and Total were finding increasing competition in countries like Gabon that they had regarded as their own. This discovery of Africa reached new heights during President Clinton's visit last March.

Senegal Rediscovered
Goree Island's elegant buildings are a clear legacy of the French presence
The photo opportunity was tailor-made. Bill and Hillary Clinton were photographed looking out to sea, and America far beyond. They stood at the "Door of No Return" on Goree Island - an eerily picturesque setting where slaves were put onto ships for the voyage across the Atlantic to the plantations of the New World. The Clintons weren't the only American visitors the island has seen; in fact, it's been the centre of a gruesomely ironic form of 'roots tourism' for some years. African Americans are coming to visit the island, and face up to the past, in growing numbers.

Ofeibea boards one of many minibuses run by the Mourides, and painted to signal their links with the pilgrimage city of Touba
It was thus no coincidence that Senegal was the only francophone country visited by Clinton on his six-state 10-day tour. For while Americans are visiting Senegal, many Senegalese are crossing the Atlantic in the other direction, migrating to major cities in the United States in search of a prosperous future. Furthermore, in political terms, Senegal is a reliable Muslim ally for the US, having sent its troops to help out in the Gulf War.

There's an even more intriguing side to the American choice of Senegal. The Mourides, one of Senegal's four major Muslim brotherhoods, have a large diaspora in the US and are a growing economic force in New York, as well as in Senegal.

A member of the Baye Fall, a flamboyant sub-sect of the Mouride brotherhood in Senegal
In fact, over 35% of the Senegalese economy is now in the hands of the Mourides. They've proved particularly shrewd in snapping up old, fomerly French-owned small businesses in import/export, light manufacturing and construction. It's said that if you're a Mouride, it's possible to raise a loan of up to US$10 million by simply walking into Dakar's vast Sandaga market and finding your contacts - without ever having to sign a single piece of paper. And the marabouts - spiritual leaders - of the Mouride and other brotherhoods have political as well as economic clout. Their followers are unswervingly loyal and will follow any advice these leaders might give - which in the recent past has often included direct instructions to vote for particular candidates.

Senegal was France's first colony in Africa, in 1658. It is one of the better advertisements for the French mission civilisatrice. Its first post-independence president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, was a member of the Academy Francaise. His poetry is studied in French schools. He is a rare breed among African leaders, having stepped down from power voluntarily. And Senegal too has been exceptional - it has remained largely peaceful, and fundamentally democratic, since. Culturally it has been one of Africa's most dynamic countries.

A statue in Dakar commemmorates Senegal's tirailleurs - riflemen who fought for France in both World Wars
There is little economic self-interest to be gained in Senegal these days, but France clings on. As a showcase for continued involvement by the French, it serves a valuable purpose - even though the same party has been in power since independence and the country's reputation as a "lighthouse of democracy" is now beginning to fade. Corruption is said to be spreading, and a separatist civil war in the southern region of Casamance has now bled into the chaotic disorder in the neighbouring state of Guinea-Bissau.

The Petrol Sponge
French policy in Africa has always comprised three elements; linguistic and cultural; geo-strategic - and economic. The tiny republic of Gabon, which is so soaked with on and offshore oil fields, is known as the Petrol Sponge or Kuwait of Africa, and is the prime example of French policy motivated by economics.

President Bongo has benefited from a lavish election campaign ...
It is the quintessential French client state. Its leader for more than three decades, President Omar Bongo, was handpicked by advisers of De Gaulle. French troops were sent in twice to put down rebellions - a reward for his unwavering loyalty to Paris. Recently, he has had to submit himself, only for the second time, to a general election. The first time, in 1993, he lost. He went to Paris to seek help. He was told to disregard the results from Libreville, the capital, and count votes only from the countryside. The right result was secured.

This time around there were officially six candidates, but no-one doubted the outcome. The campaign has been lavishly supported from state petro-dollars. Hot air balloons have carried slogans such as: "Un grand chef pour un grand Etat". Gabon has a population of less than one million and Bongo is only 5ft tall; still, he makes up for it by wearing Cuban heels and blacklisting journalists who mention his height. Another slogan :"Bongo - c'est plus sur" sounded, according to one French magazine, "more like an advert for Durex - but so what if it works".

In a country with the world's highest per capita consumption, the President has his own marque
This year Gabon is producing a record 18m tonnes of oil. It has the second highest per capita income in black Africa and the world's highest per capita consumption of champagne. Libreville is also one of the most expensive cities in the world - on a par with London. But only a tiny elite can afford the inflated prices. Despite Gabon's abundant natural resources, life expectancy is only 54, there are only 19 doctors to 100,000 people, one in 7 children die before the age of five, most houses in Libreville have no running water, more than a third of adults are illiterate and there are virtually no roads.

None of this mattered particularly to Bongo, as long as he remained in office - and French oil companies were well served. So, it was a sign of the times when Bongo boycotted the Paris summit. He was annoyed that he and other long-standing friends were having to share French largesse with an increasing number of Anglophone and Lusophone African leaders.

A New Approach
The invitations, to countries like Liberia, Nigeria, Angola and South Africa, testified to a change of tack in policy making. France was beginning to realise that it had not made inroads into some of the more lucrative areas. The new buzz phrase is Solidarity Action Zones, to show that aid is being given a more ethical dimension and is no longer to be confined to French-speaking countries.

Groups in France and Africa are forming to protest Elf's power and influence
But the resistance to change comes not just from outside, but also from within the heart of government. There are continuing rumbles of discontent about a rather-too-close relationship between French commercial interests (particularly in the oil industry) and French foreign policy. The prime minister's office would love to take aid away from countries like Gabon, but the Gaullist President's advisers want to maintain the status quo. One of the reasons France's African policy often seems contradictory is because it is run by so many different departments; the Cooperation Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Ministries of Finance and Defence, the Prime Minister's office - and the notoriously secretive 'Africa cell' which advises the President in the Elysee palace.

Hubert Vedrine, the foreign minister, was appointed by the new socialist administration. But he too seems unwilling to embrace reform and is curiously defensive when asked to justify policy. "At least we have an Africa policy," he says. "France is easily criticised because it is active on the ground."

At an open-air mess hall in the centre of Gabon, French troops stick to French food and wine
A year ago, the phrase 'Adieu Afrique' was much bandied around. The Cooperation Ministry, whose main job was to allocate funds to Francophone Africa, was downgraded. The two big military bases in the Central African Republic, at Bangui and Bouar, the launch pads for over 30 armed interventions since de-colonisation, were closed. Troop levels are to be cut by 40 per cent over the next five years.

But even though the French are retrenching and re-thinking policy, their jealously-guarded hegemony does not, after all, appear under threat. The view in Paris is that, in spite of a brief flurry after Clinton's visit, US rhetoric about a new partnership with Africa is largely hot air. American interest has remained selective and opportunist. Some 95 per cent of American investment in Africa is in the mining sector. US investment in Africa was around $8bn in 1996 while European investment reached about $400bn. Even if they do show more interest, it is from a low starting point.

Throughout Senegal, the Mourides are expanding from farming and trading into industry and construction
Meanwhile, the ever-growing community of Senegalese in the US is backed up by the considerable business acumen of the Mouride religious brotherhood. With money to invest, a workforce whose loyalty would be the envy of any multinational, and grand ambitions, the religious brotherhoods are moving into a new era of wealth and influence of their own. Even if the United States isn't ready to make money in Africa, there are many Francophone Africans keen to make money out of the States.

So rather than mourning the passing of influence, could the French be on the verge of new conquests on the continent? France, according to former co-operation minister Jacques Godfrain, is proud of its expertise, of its ability to "know the Africans better than they know themselves." But ironically, it was only the threat of an Anglo-Saxon takeover that alerted the French to the need for reform.

In any case, for men like Godfrain, Africa is the only continent where France is still first. Abandoning it is unthinkable. France needs Africa to persuade itself, and the rest of the world, that it counts for more than a once-imperial, now middle-ranking European power.

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