/ 15 April 2011

Expediency is the unofficial French policy in Africa

Officially, French troops in Côte d’Ivoire are described by their government as ‘impartial forces”. This is somewhat disingenuous.

French combat helicopters played a decisive role in the run-up to the arrest, on Monday, of outgoing Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo in his Abidjan official residence, and in the final victory of his rival, Alassane Ouattara.

This French ‘victory”, as the pro-Sarkozy newspaper Le Figaro described it on Tuesday, is a rather unexpected twist for the president, who has been struggling to define an Africa policy ever since his election. However, it is not necessarily a sign that he has now settled upon a policy.

Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t spent much time dealing with sub-Saharan Africa in his almost four years in office, unlike his predecessors who have been nicknamed Africains because of their deep involvement in the continent’s affairs. He began his relations with francophone Africa on the wrong foot with a much-decried Dakar speech in 2007, in which he proclaimed that ‘the African man has not yet entered history”.

This alienated African youth and clouded any positive message that the new French head of state might have wanted to project.

Sarkozy had a second chance on the continent with a speech in Cape Town a year later, in which he announced the renegotiating of defence agreements with former colonies, including secret clauses that allowed interference in their domestic affairs. Proudly, he declared that he had not once ordered French troops to open fire on African soil. But French helicopters firing on the presidential residence in Abidjan have broken this promise and raised serious questions about Sarkozy’s policy.

Sarkozy has defended the actions of the French military in Abidjan over the past 10 days as sanctioned by a United Nations security council resolution that called for protection of civilian lives.

He also justified the central role of French troops by pointing to the failure of the African Union and its regional grouping to step in and lead the way in removing Gbagbo from power.

Officially, it had nothing to do with its not so distant history, when France was the gendarme of its former colonies, appointing French officers at the heart of their armies and French advisers in key ministries and plotting whenever French interests were at stake — all of it carried out unilaterally.

France’s decisive action in Côte d’Ivoire has helped speed the end of suffering for millions of people caught up in the fighting in Abidjan and chase out a politician who refused to accept his defeat at the polls.

But at the same time it brought back memories of French interference in its former colonies; it was a muscular move intended to support political change in a country. The truth is that Sarkozy’s Africa policy is in disarray. In recent years, it has taken a back seat, as France’s economy became more globalised and its European dream was still alive. For several months last year, there was no ministry of co-operation in the French government and no one seemed to care. There is still an ‘Africa desk” at the Élysée Palace, the French presidential office, but it is a far cry from the days of Jacques Foccart — De Gaulle’s ‘Mr Africa” — who was pulling all the strings on the continent.

To his friends, Sarkozy is a pragmatist. To those who dislike him, he is an opportunist. He plays every move as it comes.

Three years ago he played old-style realpolitik to back Gabon’s Ali Bongo to succeed his late father, Omar Bongo — one of the pillars of the incestuous world known as ‘Francafrique” — with French troops ready to step in if things turned sour.

But this week the French leader became the champion of African democracy by launching his troops in defence of an elected president — Ouattara.

Don’t bet on France doing the same elsewhere in Africa. The activity in Côte d’Ivoire is the result of a smart move by an opportunist leader, desperately looking for foreign policy successes after his government’s disastrous management of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The French-led effort to support the Libyan insurgency is another side of this effort.

Under Sarkozy, France’s Africa policy will continue to be a mix of neglect, economic self-interest, and political expediency.

And it will have no understanding of the rapid and deep demographic and cultural changes happening on the continent, nor any vision of a renovated role for France in its relations with its former colonies. —