France Promotes New Relationship With Continent

Image: Flickr, Guilhem Vellut

After a brief stop in Chad last week, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France went on to visit a country not traditionally part of the French area of influence in Africa – South Africa.

The trip was made against the backdrop of a complete overhaul of France’s Africa policies, in which Sarkozy is proclaiming partnerships with equal nations instead of relations based on old colonial ties. Romy Chevallier of the South African Institute of International Affairs explains the background.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to South Africa was no doubt a mapping exercise linked to France’s assumption of the presidency of the European Union in mid-2008. Given the importance of Africa in French policies – and the historic meeting of European and African heads of state in Lisbon last December – a high-level visit aimed at maintaining France’s presence, or at least influence, on the continent came as no surprise.

France’s engagement with Africa has moved over the past decade from a defensive stance of seeking to protect her former spheres of historical and colonial influence – epitomised by the policies of Sarkozy’s predecessors, Jacques Chirac and François Mitterand – to one which focuses primarily on economic and financial considerations.

Shifts in French Policy

A number of events have led to this shift: the adoption of the “Abidjan doctrine” on structural adjustment – which requires good economic governance as a prerequisite for aid; the devaluation of the CFA franc – the French-guaranteed currency of many of its former colonies; and France’s haunting experience in the Great Lakes region in the early 1990s, where its support for Hutu extremists contributed to the Rwandan genocide.

The shift has been demonstrated on the one hand by a renewed focus on European integration, and on the other by a search for new markets in Africa and the rest of the developing world. The main target area of French development aid has widened, now comprising all African, Caribbean and Pacific countries which are signatories of the Lomé Convention (plus South Africa).

In the military sphere, France has moved from a strategy of direct military intervention to one which favours African-owned processes and indirect assistance. It has eschewed unilateral intervention in the internal affairs of African countries, but retains agreements to defend them from external aggression. Sarkozy convened a multilateral meeting last year on African crises, where he presented plans for international humanitarian intervention in Darfur and Somalia. France also offers support to the AU-UN Hybrid Force in Darfur (UNAMID).

In this way, France has integrated her special bilateral relationship with African countries into wider, coordinated European ties, giving preference to a multilateral agenda.

French disengagement from Francophone Africa in the late 1990s saw a redeployment of politico-diplomatic, strategic and economic interests in new territories in Africa – Nigeria, Namibia, Angola and South Africa – as well as in other emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil.

The trends were apparent before Sarkozy took office, but his electoral victory in May 2007 provided an excellent opportunity to overhaul French policy toward Africa. This was a goal to which he had alluded in earlier presidential campaign, when he pledged a “rupture” with “la Francafrique” – the policy which formed the basis of France’s traditional relations with Africa, marked by personal ties with the ruling, corrupt elites of former colonies.

His expressed wish was to move French-African dialogue beyond neo-colonial attempts to use former African colonies to advance French economic, political, and strategic interests. Less sympathetic than his predecessors to seeing Africa as a “special case,” he wanted to move beyond a relationship driven by guilt.

From “la Françafrique” to “Eurafrique” North Africa, due to its geo-strategic importance, remains of paramount importance to France, and the issue of African migration to Europe remains in this context a major priority in both bilateral and multilateral relations. But in general, Sarkozy’s new approach was seen in his first presidential trip to Africa in July 2007, when he visited Senegal and Gabon calling for a “partnership” between equal nations.

The effect of his plea was blunted when he delivered a speech in Dakar that many Africans dismissed as condescending. “The drama in Africa is that the African has never really entered history,” Sarkozy lamented. “In this imagination where everything repeats itself, there is no place for human adventure, nor for the idea of progress. In this world where nature controls everything, man has escaped the anguish of history and remains immobile in the middle of an immutable order where everything is determined.”

He went on to acknowledge the moral blight of slavery and colonialism, but stressed that these crimes were not the sole causes of Africa’s problems today. He urged Africans to take responsibility for addressing the continent’s problems and pledged France’s support. “What France wants with Africa,” he added, “is to prepare the advent of Eurafrique, a great common destiny which awaits Europe and Africa.”

South Africa ‘s President Thabo Mbeki followed up the speech with a congratulatory letter to his French counterpart. Writing in his party newsletter, ANC Today, Mbeki said the speech was “of critical importance to our country” and endorsed passages calling for partnerships between Europe and Africa to manage the harmful consequences of globalization. (Mbeki drew fire from the rest of Africa for being “an apologist for the West,” making South Africa hesitant to articulate its “national interest-driven” imperatives for fear of being misconstrued as being covertly imperialist.)

Pursuing partnership with South Africa

However, Sarkozy’s choice of South Africa for his visit is more deeply-rooted than any perception he may have that in Mbeki he has a friend. As France has disengaged from Francophone sub-Saharan Africa, she has looked toward South Africa as the ideal intermediary and power-broker.

The two countries have moved to forge a special partnership. There is increasing co-operation, bilaterally and through the African Union and European Union, especially on resolving Africa’s conflicts. South African military experts are currently in the Central African Republic (CAR), working with French military commanders on a plan to train that country’s defence force.

South Africa is also France’s leading economic partner in Africa. The French company, Areva, has been asked to bid for South Africa’s second nuclear power plant. Areva built the first plant at Koeberg, near Cape Town, and French engineers have been heavily involved in maintenance and repairs. And South Africa is among Africa’s largest producers of uranium, the fuel for nuclear reactors.

[Correction: The original version of this article which was posted assumed President Sarkozy was also travelling to Angola. This visit did not materialize, and the article was corrected to reflect only the visit to Chad and South Africa.]