New broom for 'back yard' of France
On Sunday evening, as the news spread that Socialist Party candidate François Hollande had won the French presidential elections, people flooded to the Place de la Bastille in Paris, traditionally a meeting place of the French left.
Dreadlocked tennis star Yannick Noah unpacked his guitar to celebrate the victory — finally — of the first socialist president since François Mitterand. Among the crowd, flags from Côte d’Ivoire, Tunisia and Algeria were waved to cheer the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy, widely regarded as arrogant and insensitive, not only wanted immigrants out, but also expertly managed to sustain the infamous Francafrique — the corrupt and patronising relationship between France and Francophone Africa.
The following day the right-wing Front National described the “foreign flags” at the celebrations as “surprising”. Clearly, African immigrants have reason to be happy to see the back of Sarkozy, but will things between France and Africa be fundamentally different now that Hollande is president? And why should it matter so much?
Relations between France and its Francophone pré-carré — its exclusive African back yard — have certainly evolved since the early post-colonial days when “Monsieur Afrique” of the Élysée Palace, Jacques Foccart, dictated to African presidents what they should say and do.
Overlapping interests and institutions
Those were the days when former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing went hunting in the Central African Republic forests with one of the continent’s more bizarre rulers, Jean-Bédel Bokassa; when money went straight out of France as budget support and straight back into the French ruling-party coffers via the African heads of state.
“We were treated like children,” said Jean-Paul Ngoupandé, a former government minister from the Central African Republic in his book Africa without France.
But despite globalisation, the keen eye of Transparency International and a general lack of interest towards Africa among French voters, things have not changed that dramatically.
The close relationship between Francophone Africa and France is perpetuated by a network of overlapping interests and institutions, a fervent desire on the part of some to preserve the French language, close-knit business relationships and an influential Paris-based media that often acts as the kingmakers and treats Francophone Africa as one big happy family.
Weeks ahead of the presidential vote, the weekly Jeune Afrique published extensive analyses of which of the two candidates would be preferred in each of the Francophone African capitals.
Following the vote, Radio France International broadcast vox pops with people in Dakar, Libreville and Abidjan who all had strong views on the issue. “Thanks Sarko, goodbye Hollande,” cheered a patron in a café in Abidjan. “With Hollande we’re turning over a new leaf,” said an inhabitant of Brazzaville.
Whoever runs France matters to Africans, especially the ruling elite, because meddling in African affairs will not stop overnight. Many Africans also will simply not let go.
When Nicolas Sarkozy came to power he vowed to “normalise” relations with Africa, prioritise key countries such as Nigeria and South Africa and do away with the pré carré so dear to his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
The allegations made by French lawyer Robert Bourgi last year that suitcases of money were regularly sent by African leaders to finance political campaigns in France are indicative of just how bad things got in the Chirac era. Bourgi alleged that five African heads of state — Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville and Omar Bongo of Gabon — contributed up to $10-million for Chirac’s 2002 presidential campaign.
It must be said that even though the Francafrique continued on his watch, Sarkozy had a different approach to Africa. He is not a collector of African art. He did not enjoy shaking hands with the crowds in dusty African capitals or sitting around at summits chatting to leaders.
In fact, if you ask Cameroonian writer Achille Mbembe, who lives in Johannesburg, Sarkozy and his generation of French elites “despise” Africa. On one of his first trips as newly elected president in 2007, to Dakar in Senegal, Sarkozy made a disastrous speech that would tarnish his relations with Africa forever.
On Sunday night as the results of Hollande’s win came in, extracts of the loser’s Dakar speech were again broadcast on the French channel TV5 Monde. African journalists participating in the TV5 post-election debate again remarked on how shameful Sarkozy’s words were.
“Africa has not sufficiently become part of history” was one of the phrases that shocked the most. Mbembe and others branded Sarkozy forever as racist and deeply patronising.
Sarkozy nevertheless tried to pursue his “normalisation” of relations with Africa by announcing dramatic cuts in the French military presence on the continent during a speech in Cape Town in 2008. This was certainly the plan and was brought about by an increasing unwillingness on the part of the French population to intervene militarily in Africa to prop up unpopular dictators.
Not in his wildest dreams could Sarkozy have imagined that during his mandate French planes would be dropping bombs over the presidential palace in Abidjan to force Gbagbo to get out.
Nor could he or anyone else have predicted that French warplanes would be shooting at armoured vehicles filled with troops loyal to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in the desert outside Benghazi.
It would be fair to argue that France’s military intervention in both Libya and Cote d’Ivoire were the result of political decisions taken in a certain context — in Libya to protect France’s image after failing dismally to support the Arab uprisings and in Côte d’Ivoire to reinstate the legitimately elected president — and not the culmination of a long-time strategy to recolonise Africa, as some would like to believe. Though clearly, in both cases, French military intervention has been hugely beneficial to French business.
Hollande takes over at a time when France’s declared policy of nonintervention in internal affairs in Africa has been wiped off the table. Nothing prevents Hollande from sending troops anywhere if he believes it is to protect civilians.
But would he want to go that far? French public opinion certainly would be against France once again acting as the big brother in Africa.
Indications are that Hollande might try to end the common practice of basing all African decision-making at the Élysée Palace and of sending clandestine emissaries to influence Francophone leaders. But it is not guaranteed.
Hollande will clearly be welcomed in countries such as South Africa, where President Jacob Zuma was one of the first African heads of states to congratulate him on his win just after 10pm on Sunday night.
“All progressive Africans should celebrate” was the Twitter comment by the department of international relations and co-operation’s spokesperson, Clayson Monyela. This is certainly more of “anything but Sarkozy” than a real expectation of what Hollande could do for Africa.
In fact, people know too little about Hollande to make any clear predictions about his foreign policy. During his campaign, Hollande did promise to put an end to the “miasma of the Francafrique” — a statement likely to concern quite a number of African heads of state.
The first to be worried should be Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang-Nguema, who, with the late Bongo of Gabon, are accused of acquiring more than R1.64-billion worth of real estate in France with money illegally siphoned off state coffers. The case is still ongoing.
Other long-serving heads of state, such as Burkina Faso’s Compaoré, might not feel that comfortable with Hollande either, but Senegal’s newly elected Macky Sall should have no problem with him and neither would Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara. Although Ouattara is deeply indebted to Sarkozy for helping to put him in power, he is a respected politician and will be treated that way — nothing like the Ali Bongos and Faure Gnassingbés of this world, who took over from their fathers in Gabon and Togo, respectively.
Although he might not want to send troops to rescue kidnapped French citizens in the Sahel, the dramatic occupation of northern Mali by a mix of Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda-linked groups will certainly be one of the first challenges for Hollande’s Africa policy.
France recently indicated it would provide logistical support to a regional force of the Economic Community of West Africa in Mali and Hollande might honour that pledge, but what would it do if lawlessness in Mali spreads elsewhere in the Sahel — a region already hugely unstable?
One of the first tests for Hollande’s approach towards Africa will be in October when the biannual Francophone summit takes place in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
DRC President Joseph Kabila’s election in November last year was hugely problematic and travelling to co-chair this meeting will be an embarrassment for Hollande. But then again, the DRC is a huge, rich country. Although it is not a former French colony, the people do speak French. And France surely cannot let China take over all the business oportunities in Africa?
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is editor of the-African.org, a bimonthly magazine of the Institute for Security Studies